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Don’t feed the deer, wildlife officials warn

Published Apr 22nd, 2021 9:24PM EDT
stop feeding wild animals
Image: tomreichner/Adobe

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If you live in a rural area or even on the outskirts of a city where a greater variety of wild animals may find their way into your yard, you might find it tempting to feed them. Small mammals like squirrels and rabbits are going to find their way to your property whether you like it or not, but larger animals like deer will often only return with regularity if there’s a source of food, and as a human, you can choose whether or not to provide that food. Wildlife officials are begging you to choose not to, and they have a very good reason.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently put out a public alert regarding the feeding of wild animals like deer, but it’s good advice no matter what state you live in. The agency is superficially targeting deer feeding because of the spikes in chronic wasting disease that have sprung up in various parts of the United States. The disease can be spread from animal to animal via waste or even saliva, and it’s a death sentence for any animal that catches it.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a sickness that affects the brain, causing a buildup of deadly proteins that causes the animal to slowly deteriorate. The animals may appear disoriented or confused, and eventually lose control of their bodies, leading to death. The animals that are infected release prions, which are infectious proteins that can be transmitted via waste and saliva, as well as consumption of certain parts of the animal.

“These prions are highly resistant to chemical and environmental degradation, and once the environment becomes contaminated with prions from shedding deer or infected carcasses, it can be a source of infection for years into the future,” Utah’s DWR explains.

Feeding the animals regularly can cause them to return often, and deer that may be infected may spread their infection to others that are congregating around the same food source. If an infected animal eats from a manmade food source and others follow, they may become infected as well, and those animals could then spread the illness to others and, well, you see where this is going.

Additionally, feeding deer with food that they wouldn’t typically eat can actually cause them to starve. Deer are built to digest leafy foods and grass, and feeding them other types of food that they can’t easily digest can cause their stomach to remain full but not actually provide the animal with the nutrients it needs to survive. It might actually starve to death while still having food in its stomach.

Some states, like Utah, have passed laws making it illegal to use feed as a method of baiting deer for the purpose of hunting them. You’ll want to check with your own local laws to see where your state and county stand on the issue, but regardless of that, it’s best to just avoid feeding large wild mammals. You might save their lives.