A young tourist has been caught on camera getting a painful lesson about not feeding wildlife at Rocky Mountain National Park. The boy was hand-feeding an elk with his parents when the animal bit his fingers. Thankfully he wasn't injured, but wild animals are unpredictable and things could easily have ended differently.
The incident (which you can watch below) was captured by Sebastian Stornum in 2021, but has begun recirculating on social media this week after being shared on winter sports site Unofficial Networks. As hiking season gets underway, it's a timely reminder to give wildlife plenty of space, and never approach or interact with animals.
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People may think they're helping wild animals by feeding them, but it can actually be very harmful. Not only is there a risk of being attacked (even seemingly docile animals can become aggressive if they feel threatened), being fed by visitors means they are more likely to seek out human food in future, increasing the odds of a dangerous close encounter.
They can also lose their natural wariness of humans – a phenomenon called habituation. If a habituated or food-conditioned animal is deemed to be a risk to public safety, it may need to be put down.
Being hand-fed also means animals are less likely to seek out their natural diet, which can have disastrous effects on their health.
"Most animals have very specific natural diets and therefore specific kinds of digestive bacteria," explains the National Park Service (NPS). "Being fed human food causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominant in their stomachs. Soon these animals are no longer able to digest their natural foods.
"They end up starving to death with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along. What could be crueler?"
When it comes to wildlife, the NPS advises that the best relationship is a long-distance relationship. Visitors should stay at least 75ft (23 meters) from elk and bighorn sheep, and at least 120ft (36 meters) from moose, mountain lions, and bears. People should never try to distract animals or get a reaction from them.
"The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video is posing a new threat to wildlife and humans," warns the NPS.
"Trigger-happy tourists have started to provoke animals, and in some instances, alter their behaviors as a result. Quietly watching from a distance can be even more rewarding than getting the perfect shot."
Best binoculars and monoculars: enjoy wildlife watching from a safe distance