How do I not be an asshole when I’m in nature and see someone trying to hand feed human food to a squirrel?
This questions seems quite appropriate, given this video that’s been making the rounds this week:
As folks set off for their summer holidays, many will find themselves in nature, and sometimes in the company of wild animals. People seem to forget that even cute animals can be dangerous. A squirrel might not pull your child into the bay, but as you point out, it might bite your child, getting her quite sick. But even beyond that, these animals are not pets. They are not here for our amusement. They have food that works for their bodies; handing them bits of bread is not good for them. Some animals are made to eat certain types of food, and when humans give them other things we are actually harming them.
I know that some folks don’t like to get involved. They don’t think what other people do is their business, and they hate conflict. And I get it. Generally speaking, people can do what they want. But a public area that is meant to be shared with the rest of us is not their living room; there are rules for a reason. I remember once a guy just left his empty frappuccino cup on the subway platform and stepped onto the train. So I picked it up, stepped onto the train, handed it to him, said “you forgot this” and then stepped off the train before the doors closed. Dude probably just left it on the train floor, but I felt compelled to point out that our public space is not his garbage can. So what I’m saying is, I’m fully on board with telling other people when they’re causing harm, but also recognize that it can be hard to find the best way to do it.
If you are in a park with a ranger near by, I’d suggest mentioning to the ranger that you’ve been seeing some people feeding animals in a specific area, and then leave it to them to decide how to proceed. Yes, this feels like tattling, but also the rangers are paid and trained to do the work of keeping the park safe for us and the animals in it. It’s possible that the people feeding animals couldn’t read the signs, or don’t think it is really that big of a deal, but they might listen to a ranger (and probably are more likely to listen to the ranger than you, a random stranger).
If it’s just you and the squirrel feeders, it’s still worth saying something. To avoid a potentially uncomfortable confrontation, I suggest going into it with the idea that they may have just missed the sign, or might not get how dangerous it can be. Yes, they may be aware and just think that the rules don’t apply to them, but for now, assume the best. One suggestion is to say:
“Hi! I’m guessing you missed the signs so I wanted to give you a heads up that we really aren’t supposed to feed the squirrels. Some fellow hikers have gotten very sick recently from these cute little guys, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t!”
That last sentence is true in the broad sense of ‘recently’ (Yosemite had plague cases as recently as 2015), but if you feel like that’s too close to a lie here’s another option:
“Hi. I was hoping I might be able to convince you to stop trying to feed the squirrels. I know they’re super cute – and seem super friendly – but I recently learned that all the human food hikers have been giving them has been hurting these guys.”
Now, you may not have heard this recently, but this allows the person you’re talking to the opportunity to feel like maybe this isn’t the most common knowledge, and they can save a little face.
Finally, if the people who are doing it are fellow hikers or climbers that you don’t know well but have interacted with a couple of times, you can always go with:
“Dude! You’re not feeding the squirrels, are you? No, I know, they’re really adorable and seem friendly but oh man, you will get in so much trouble when the rangers catch you. You don’t want to get kicked out of the park do you?”
This approach makes it seem like you’re more worried about their ability to enjoy the park than them actually breaking any rules, which might appeal to certain folks.
You can also try some combination of all three, depending on the feeling you get from them.
There is another option, but it is so passive aggressive that it will send you into asshole land. If you’re with a partner or a child or friend, as you pass the offenders, you can loudly say “Remember son, even if you see other people doing it, you don’t ever feed the animals. It’s not good for them and it’s not safe for us.” As someone who is conflict averse (and also a bit snarky), this one appeals to me the most, but honestly it’s an asshole move. Just say something kindly and directly to the offenders instead.
And remember – people are proud and tend to not like being told what to do. So in the moment, they may choose to ignore your advice and continue feeding the animals. And while that’s not okay, recognize that their actions are beyond your control. However, keep in mind that they might take in what you’ve said, and the next time they encounter a cute critter, may choose not to feed it.