A decades-old tradition in New York City parks could soon be no more.
There’s always been an understanding that park visitors shouldn’t feed the wildlife. But that’s never applied to pigeons and other birds. Yet, under proposed rules by the city’s parks department, feeding any animal in Van Cortlandt Park or any other city park will be prohibited.
And they mean any.
The goal, parks officials say, is to reduce food attracting vermin, like rats. At the same time, it also comes down to ensuring proper nutrition for wildlife.
People caught sneaking snacks to furry friends could be slapped with a $50 fine. And even though fines would be waived for a short time while parks officials try to unlearn longtime practices, the proposal has ruffled more than a few feathers among animal lovers.
Animals, like humans, love junk food, to the point they fill up and have no room left for the more nutritious foods they are supposed to eat.
“I have seen photographers trying to lure birds on the birder bridge in the marsh with french fries and other junk food,” said Debbi Dolan, who has led nature walks for the Nature Group of Van Cortlandt Park since 2014. “It’s unhealthy for them, as is feeding bread to waterfowl.”
Eating nutritionally imbalanced “people” foods can cause serious health problems. Waterfowl can develop a condition called “angel wing,” caused by a diet high in calories and low in vitamins. The last joint in the bird’s wing twists and flight feathers deform. It can render birds flightless, often dooming them to an early death.
“Also the other thing is that these are wild animals,” said Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. “They should not be getting comfortable approaching humans for food.”
Demanding squirrels getting all up in one’s face for a french fry may be cute, but not if it’s a larger animal. Raccoons can bite. Swans are surprisingly strong and fast. And if wildlife is used to people giving them a meal, some might not take no for an answer.
Van Cortlandt Park has a healthy ecosystem thanks to its size and large areas of natural forests that can support animals, so there’s no need for humans to feed them. But Roxanne Delgado of Bronx Animal Rights Electors says abundant food in all other parks in the city is not as certain. Her organization launched a campaign against the rule change, saying it was inherently bad for the city’s animals.
Natural food sources are best, but problems arise when parks remove plants and trees that could supply that food, instead replacing it with open fields or pavement. Without an abundant source of nuts, grains, seeds, mushrooms and insects, wildlife goes hungry.
“Plus, I think if the parks are so concerned with what the animals eat, why don’t they do something about the food waste left in garbage cans,” she said. Even with strict rules in place, they do not address the scraps any self-respecting opossum can easily retrieve from the trash.
Robert DeCandido is a Bronx-based biologist and birder who has studied the city’s wildlife for the past 30 years. He says the new rule would make little difference to highly adaptable wildlife.
What’s at stake is the communion between man and beast, he said. Feeding birds in the park is about as New York as one can get. Generations have chosen their favorite spot to find and connect with nature. Penalize feeding animals, and the people lose those awestruck, wide-eyed experiences of a wren shyly pecking millet from an open palm.
“Why stop that? Why go down that road?” DeCandido said. “It seems (parks officials) are going against their own interests with this.”
He believes concerns about aggressive animals are overblown. Yes, some animals become bold when a meal is at stake, but the biggest threat to people is the potential exposure to rabies.
“And if people are stupid enough to let a raccoon crawl all over them,” DeCandido said, “that’s their problem.”
Park officials don’t want to end close encounters with wildlife, they just want to make them safer to everyone involved, parks spokeswoman Megan Lalor said. Violators will be asked by park enforcement patrol to stop feeding animals first. The fines will only be issued when absolutely necessary.
While the rules are meant primarily to benefit wildlife, it’s also a strategy to reduce the rat population. Less food left out means fewer free meals for pests. In 2017, the city began trading out wire wastebaskets with solar-powered trash compactors. The mailbox-type opening seals garbage off from curious paws, and has already resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the rat population in certain areas, according to a city press release.
If approved by the city’s law department, the feeding ban will take effect this summer.
“We think all New Yorkers should be healthy eaters, including our wildlife,” a city statement said. “But food left on the ground is an open invitation for rodents to congregate for a free meal. This amendment will help clarify the rules, and keep our parks safe and clean.”