About the Author: Naomi Brand is Saffa Vet and badass trail legend. She is living in the UK doing what she does best, running and sharing her passion for the wild.
If you’ve spent times on the trails, beaches, mountain tops (and for that matter, any wild space) in South Africa; you’ve encountered wildlife – whether you were aware of it or not 😉
In South Africa we are blessed with such biodiversity that even trail runners, who typically spend as many hours outdoors as possible, will never be able to fully fathom just how many living creatures – great and small – occur in those same environments we run in… What species use the same trails we run to stalk their prey at night, sleep near the viewpoint we stop for snacks, or rely on water from the same stream we fill our bottles.
Part of the thrill of being in the outdoors, is seeing wild animals in their natural habitat (To be honest – it’s half the reason I’m a trail runner)! It’s such a human thing to want to be close to animals – to see them up close, or even touch them. It’s a way of connecting, and learning about them. And it’s tempting to attract a wild animal with something to eat as a way of achieving that. But have you ever thought about how this could not be in the best interest of the animals?
Why should we Not Feed Animals?
There are two main reasons why you shouldn’t be feeding wildlife –
Human food is not animal food!
Different animal species have different digestive systems (think cow, duck, dog, hamster, snake…), and therefore have different nutrient needs. And ingesting the wrong food type- even in the smallest amounts- can have devastating effects. I see the results of people feeding human food to pets under their care every day in practice. Symptoms typically range from nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and lethargy; to seizures, organ failure and ultimately- death. What always surprizes me though, is how little pet owners in general know about what foods are/could potentially be toxic and harmful to their furry friends. Common things like grapes, raisins, chocolate, artificial sweeteners (e.g. xylitol), avocado and apricot pips, mushrooms, onions, garlic, caffeine, nuts… even cow’s milk can cause serious illness or be fatal to your pet (depending on their unique digestive system, how much they ingest etc). And it’s not only the food we eat, but the leftovers we leave behind that can pose a risk. Corn cobs nicked from the trash, for example, is one of the main culprits for foreign body obstructions in dogs; whereas chewing and swallowing bones can fracture teeth, damage intestines or cause blockages. A plastic bag or wrapper ingested by a cow can form a plug that prevents them from eructating (burping), and lead to bloat and death. On the other hand, there is a great deal of research proving that ducks and other birds fed mostly bread by people run out of important nutrients they would be getting from natural food sources which could also lead to their demise (even if the bread is not necessarily toxic/harmful!?)…The list is long. And these are just some of the things that pets and other domesticated animals- animals we understand and generally know more about- shouldn’t eat/ingest. Now imagine how careful we need to be when it comes to wildlife…
In South Africa we are blessed with such a biodiversity that even trail runners, who typically spend as many hours outdoors as possible, will never be able to fully fathom just how many living creatures- great and small- occur in those same environments we run in… What species use the same trails where we run to stalk their prey at night, sleep near the viewpoint we stop for snacks or rely on water from the same stream we stop to fill our bottles. So imagine what harm you could cause but feeding a wild animal your raisin and chocolate bar; or a bite of your garlic-loaded sarmie… And even if you don’t try to feed the animals you encounter, leaving leftovers or wrappers behind can do just as much harm.
Wild animals are WILD!
The second reason is that wild animals lose their natural fear for humans when they associate us with food. And this means that you or the animal(s) involved can get seriously hurt. (I’m sure those of you who’ve lived in Cape Town, and have an encounter with baboons, can relate!) Animals spend most of their energy looking for water and food- whether that includes berries or mice or roots. So if we offer them food, it saves them from spending all that energy. And naturally, they would rather approach us… And they won’t necessarily be polite about it!
What to do when Encountering Wildlife
So what should you be doing when encountering wildlife on the trails? Here are a couple of useful tips I’ve gathered from my experience as a field guide.
- The best thing to do when you encounter wild animals is to leave them be. Move past them, and try not to interrupt what they are doing. Even touching or picking them up could do damage! For example, picking up a tortoise often leads to them urinating in response to fear, and they can end up losing precious moisture. This means they can become severely dehydrated, especially in hot summer months when water sources are few and far apart.
- Try to keep your dog on a leash! One of the main threats for birds and small reptiles is our pets. If you are out and about in a wild space, you (and your dog!) need to respect the animals that live there. It’s their turf after all.
- If you find an animal that’s hurt or injured, contact the SPCA or your nearest vet who will tell you what to do. If it is possible to take the animal to safety, do so. But be aware that animals will try and protect themselves at all costs, and that you might get hurt in the process. In certain situations it is- even if it breaks our hearts- best to let nature take its course.
- If you live and run in an area where potentially dangerous wildlife occur (lions, leopard, rhino, buffalo), be vigilant and always tell someone when going out on a run. The general ‘rule’ is: when you encounter a large predator species (lion, leopard), rather stand your ground and make yourself as big as possible rather than trying to run away. And if you encounter a buffalo or rhino, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction; or climb the highest tree!
- If you do end up getting hurt by an animal, seek medical attention asap. A handy tip is to download the South African Snake Bite Institute app, which tells you which snakes, scorpions and spiders occur in your area, whether they are dangerous and what you need to do if bitten/stung.
In the end, we need to remember that nature has been there for centuries and can continue to function perfectly without us interfering. As much as you’d like to connect, ask yourself whether you are acting in the animal’s best interest.
And if not – rather let wild animals be wild!