A recent Facebook post from Zion National Park’s official page warned visitors about a strange sight they might see in the park:
“Rodents of Unusual Size? I think they don’t exist”. – This squirrel, probably.
However, if you’ve ever walked the Riverside Walk you know that we do have Rodents of Unusual Size, specifically overweight rock squirrels (Citellus variegatus). Their weight loss struggles are compounded by food waste litter and by people deliberately feeding them.”
The post had an accompanying photo of a large rock squirrel holding a piece of food, It went on to warn visitors of the many dangers of feeding wildlife.
Why Feeding Wildlife is Never Okay
When most people think about the potential dangers of feeding wildlife, they think about getting bit or otherwise attacked by the critter in question. So when visitors see tiny, adorable rodents like rock squirrels, they see a harmless animal that couldn’t possibly hurt them. Add in the fact that many rock squirrels in the park are already comfortable with people? It’s not surprising that so many tourists do feed them.
But while they may look harmless, they are far from it. And feeding them is not just dangerous for you, but for the animals as well.
Most human food, and especially processed snacks and picnic foods, are packed with sugar and fiber but lacking in important nutrients and vitamins that animals need to survive. This means that rock squirrels are filling on up sugary snacks and no longer foraging for the food that they need, which can lead to serious health issues or even death.
The longer rock squirrels and other animals go without foraging for their own food, the more they begin to lose that important skill. Over time, they’ll lose not just their ability to forage for food, but also their natural instinct to protect themselves. They’ll constantly wander into picnic areas and campgrounds, or anywhere that people are. This means more run-ins with cars and other hazards.
Humans carry bacteria that, while harmless to us, can cause various illnesses and diseases in animals when they come in close contact with us. In the same way, humans can catch diseases from animals, particularly rodents like rock squirrels. For instance, rock squirrels have been known to carry bubonic plague.
Feeding Larger Mammals
Rock squirrels are far from the only animals you might see during your Zion adventure. The park is home to 68 species of animals. Many of the mammals that call Zion home, like bighorn sheep, foxes, and mountain lions, are rare to spot in the park.
But like rock squirrels, mule deer are a common sight. This also means that it’s common to see them grazing in picnic areas or other popular spots for tourists. While they may seem gentle and leisurely, think twice before you try feeding them. Mule deer have been known to buck or charge when they feel threatened. Like rock squirrels, eating food from humans means that deer won’t get the nutrients they need, puts them at risk for disease, and may cause them to lose some of their natural instincts.
Safe Wildlife Viewing
Watching animals in their natural habitats is just one of the many activities you can enjoy during your trip to Zion National Park. Like hiking or camping, there are rules you’ll want to follow if you want to stay safe while observing wildlife. Not trying to feed any animals is just one of them.
You should always aim to stay at least 25 feet away from smaller animals, like rock squirrels or birds. For larger animals, like bighorn sheep, mule deer, or mountain lions, you’ll want to stay at least 100 feet away. If you’re having trouble visualizing how far 100 feet is, just imagine 3 school buses lined up end to end between you and the critter you’re watching.
If you see wildlife while you’re driving through the park, slow down. Wildlife may dart into the road unexpectedly. You can also expect other drivers to slow down or stop if there is wildlife near the road, so be aware that traffic may come to a quick halt in front of you.
Campers also need to take precautions to protect themselves and wildlife:
- Never toss food scraps on the ground or into a firepit.
- Pack up trash and leftover food and either store it in animal-proof containers or in your vehicle overnight.
- Always double check your campsite for trash or food scraps left behind when you’re done camping.
The best way to enjoy Zion’s wildlife safely and without putting any animals at risk is to do so at a distance. Don’t forget to bring your camera to capture a few shots of the park’s incredible inhabitants!