How Our Wildlife Became Less Wild

By Daphne Sashin
ST CLOUD, FL–The Sandhill Cranes showed up at Bob Alexander’s back door about a month ago, tapping on the windows like a pair of pushy salesmen.

Nearly every morning and afternoon since then, they have returned to Alexander’s lakefront home east of St. Cloud. In their persistent pecking, the squawking birds have peeled away bits of insulating caulk from his windows. As bothered as he is by the damage to his house, Alexander is equally peeved at the neighbor who likely hooked the birds on human handouts.

“Somebody has taken wild animals that could completely fend for themselves and made them reliant to humans,” said Alexander, an educational-testing consultant. “We’re messing around with Mother Nature too much.”

As more land is cleared for homes and other development, the territories of humans and animals increasingly overlap. Feeding many types of wildlife is against the law, but that doesn’t stop people from putting out cat food or birdseed for the neighborhood critters, thinking they’re doing a good deed.

“We’re moving into their territory, and then we’re offering them a bite to eat,” said Jessica Sullivan of the Osceola County Extension Office. “Wildlife stops becoming quite so wild, and then the problems start. Then the interactions become a little less pleasant.”

For humans, the consequences can range from property damage to rabies to potentially fatal encounters. In the past five years, Florida’s Health Department has documented an average of 52 rabies incidents per year. Since 1979, state wildlife agents have had to euthanize 25 bears when they lost their natural fear of people and continued to return to neighborhoods, putting the public at risk.

Wildlife typically have no reason to approach people unless food is involved. But when creatures lose their instinctive fear of people, the animals are more likely to start trouble. At least once a month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s northeast region, which includes Central Florida, sends a letter to a homeowners association where nuisance cranes have been reported. The letter describes the dangers of feeding the birds and recommends that people develop wildlife refuges in their backyard instead.

“If they’re used to handouts, if you don’t have a handout to give, they’ll go after your pool screen or your windows,” Sullivan said. “They’re not trying to be aggressive; they’re just saying, ‘Where’s my food?’ “

For the animals, the feedings can cause health problems, diminish their foraging skills, and interfere with reproduction rates and migration patterns. Sandhill Cranes will get so accustomed to humans that they frequently don’t move out of the way when they see cars coming. In other cases, the birds cause such a nuisance that people lose their respect for the threatened species.

Other animals, such as Raccoons and Black Bears, will intrude into yards without an invitation. Such is the case in Seminole, where wildlife officials are frequently called to remove nuisance bears found rummaging in pet-food dishes or dumpsters.

People put out bird feeders not realizing that they’re also feeding the neighborhood rats, squirrels and Raccoons. Once in the yard, it’s only a matter of time before the animals squeeze into a crevice in the house, said Steven Walker, director of customer service for Wildlife Solutions in Sanford. The company was featured in the National Geographic series Animal Extractors, about conflicts that arise when local wildlife populations adapt to development.

“People just do not realize that something as large as a Raccoon, or even a rat or squirrel, can fit into these areas,” Walker said.

The bottom line, wildlife advocates say: If a Raccoon or a fox wanders through your yard at night, enjoy the encounter from a distance and put away the dog food. –Orlando Sentinel