We’re all guilty of it. Tossing bits of bread into the duck pond. Leaving bowls of food outside for the foxes. Chucking a chip at a passing pigeon or giving our leftovers to the hungry strays on our way home from work. But are we really helping? How can we know for sure if we are saving a life by offering wild animals scraps of food or whether we are harming them? Do our actions have consequences beyond just giving a free meal to a hungry animal?

It’s important to recognize when it is beneficial, even necessary, to offer support to animals with food, and when it’s in their best interest to leave them alone. Feeding the animals obviously gives the immediate benefit of filling up a hungry tummy, but it may come as a surprise that there are many more disadvantages to giving them a free meal than you may realize.

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Feeding Urban Birds

It is the unfortunate reality that some animals are labelled as “pest” species as a result of being tough and resilient in a world that is often cruel and harsh to non-humans. It seems unfair to persecute them for doing things like digging for food in trash cans or making burrows to try and snatch some snacks indoors.

However, the reality is that these animals are looked on unfavorably, and while that doesn’t mean we should cause harm to them, it does mean we should not encourage the numbers to climb even higher. In the case of some animals, such as urban pigeons, they are such a common sight that it seems wrong when we don’t see any. They scramble about the sidewalks and do a pretty good job of keeping them cleaner than they otherwise would be, by quickly scarfing down leftovers and crumbs.

But we get into trouble when we go out of our way to intentionally feed animals like these birds. Throwing breadcrumbs to pigeons, for example, teaches them to return to a certain place for a rich supply of food. They will then see this area as an ideal breeding ground and their populations will expand exponentially. In the UK, pigeon overpopulation has lead to talk of culls. It seems that feeding these animals in an effort to help them survive is only heightening the likelihood that they will be systematically killed by humans. Such a sad irony.

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Instead, if you wish to feed wild birds, consider doing so in your own garden and not in public places. Use a variety of feeders to attract a variety of species, and use a good quality seed mix. Clean the feeders regularly to prevent the spread of disease between animals, and to protect you from contracting them.

Throwing Bread to Ducks

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Very few of us have not enjoyed the experience of going to the local pond and tossing bread into the water – in fact, in Britain alone, an estimated six billion loaves of bread are fed to ducks a year! Hundreds of children watch with glee as ducks, geese and the like gather round and gobble up their reward. But it appears our childhood antics were not so good after all – and, in ,fact could be killing our feathered friends.

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Bread is not part of a duck’s typical diet, but of course, they act with no hesitation when a tasty morsel is put in front of their beaks. Sadly, a diet that is high in these carbohydrates can cause birds to develop a wing deformity, known as angel wings. This improper diet is thought to interfere with the development of bird’s bones and leads them to bend outwardly which can prevent them from flying or swimming properly.

Make sure when visiting the pond that you are allowed to bring food, and if you choose to feed the birds, ensure that you are providing a healthy source of energy for them – frozen vegetables such as peas and chopped green beans, sliced grapes, plain porridge oats, and torn lettuce are all great choices. You can even purchase a specially formulated duck food from many pet stores if you visit often.

Scraps and Stray Cats

A skinny looking cat sitting amongst the garbage in the alley is a sorry sight indeed. But should we feed them? What if there was more we could do? Rather than chucking scraps down for the stray cats and dogs that you may encounter in your town, consider working with your community to create a better future for these animals.

Feeding a hungry stray is a kind thing to do, but it won’t help them in the long run, especially if they are in poor condition or plagued with parasites. Baiting a trap cage with canned meat and catching the animal will allow you to take them to a vet or local shelter, who may be able to cover most of the costs of treatment for the animal. Further, many shelters run trap, neuter, return  (TNR) programs that help to keep stray cat populations, specifically, under control. Check with your local shelter to see if they run a TNR program, and if they don’t, check out this article to find out how to start one.

You can tell if a cat has already been treated and neutered by checking his ears, which will be notched. On the other hand, in the case of cats, if they are not approachable and in relatively good condition, they are likely to be feral. These animals do not require feeding, and are able to look after themselves.

Other Ways to Help

As animal lovers, it can be difficult to betray our natural inclination to feed a hungry looking animal, but when we consider the potential consequences of doing so, in some cases, the best course of action is to leave the animals be. The good new is, there are many other ways you can help animals, check out these resources to find out how:

Image source: Wikimedia Commons