Earlier this month, Yellowstone released an impassioned plea in response to a rash of incidents involving wildlife. “The park calls on visitors to protect wildlife by understanding how their actions can negatively impact wildlife. Approaching wild animals can drastically affect their well-being and, in some cases, their survival.”
Park officials might as well have been shouting into the wind, their message unheard or ignored by visitors.
“WTF is wrong with people,” a commenter posted on TouronsofYellowstone, an Instagram account that shared a recent video of a shirtless man harassing a black bear.
A lot, it turns out.
As social media is our witness, spring has ushered in some seriously bad behavior directed at national park denizens. Since late May, park visitors have carried a newborn bison up a river bank (Yellowstone had to euthanize the calf); driven a baby elk to a police station; pet and snapped a selfie of bison; killed or crashed into a menagerie of animals in their cars; and serially tormented bears.
“It has always been happening, but I think we’re just more aware of it because it rockets around on social media,” said John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s hard to quantify exactly how it’s increased, but it is still occurring, despite the incredible lengths the parks and rangers go to to educate the people who visit.”
Azzedine Downes, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, attributes the higher frequency of incidents to the surge of people who retreated to the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re seeing more of it post-pandemic, because there was an increase of interaction with wildlife and people during the pandemic,” Downes said.
Please don’t feed the ponies
At Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia and Maryland, park officials noticed a rise of first-time visitors - and infractions involving the wild horses that reside on the barrier island. Last June, they had to relocate a horse named Chip to a Texas sanctuary because of a food aggression that developed from illegal feedings.
“Visitors regularly try to pet, feed and sometimes ride the horses. The wild horses are wild, not tame,” said Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education at Assateague. “When the horses associate humans with food rewards, each occurrence and situation can get progressively more dangerous.”
National parks provide guidance on how to safely and responsibly view the wildlife, such as the proper observation distances - generally at least 25 or 100 yards, depending on the park and species. The information is everywhere: on the park’s websites, at trailheads and visitor centers, and in brochures, including the welcome guide and map the rangers hand to each incoming guest.
At Assateague, the Pony Patrol, a roving band of volunteers, educate visitors about proper horse etiquette and distribute free straps to secure coolers. The park also provides food storage cabinets at picnic areas.
“There are many visitors that think that they are safe in a national park. They may think the wildlife is there for their entertainment. They may view the park as a drive-through petting zoo,” Davis said. “This is one of the best reasons that illustrate the need for our Pony Patrol volunteers.”
If the rules fail to sink in, park officials may invoke the law. It is illegal to “feed, touch, tease, frighten or intentionally disturb wildlife,” according to the NPS.
For instance, the Hawaii man who interfered with the baby bison was fined $1,000. Yellowstone and Grand Teton authorities are investigating at least two of the events. If found guilty, the suspects could face up to six months in jail and thousands of dollars in penalties.
It’s not all stupidity
Park visitors have been communing too closely with the wildlife since the early days of the National Park Service, which was established in 1916. Archival photos from the National Geographic Image Collection show Yellowstone visitors tempting bears onto roads with food and congregating around the predators. In the images, the animals are standing on their hind legs like circus performers, leaning into open cars windows or trying eat out of a man’s raised hand.
However, videos stored in the Greater Yellowstone Sights and Sounds Archive, a collection of 80,000 historical recordings housed in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming, depict the dark side of these encounters. In several clips, Yellowstone bison chase people around a cluster of trees, a boardwalk and a car. All does not end well: A man is gored and a child is trampled.
“The people who put their kids on top of a bison or on top of a bear. That’s not ignorance. That’s idiocy,” said Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in Indiana.
People who flout the rules for their own kicks or for their social media followers fall into the “stupidity” category, according to wildlife experts. They are putting their selfish pursuits before an animal’s welfare, which even the most seemingly benign act can compromise.
“They’re doing it just to get content or to have a good time without considering any of the potential negatives that could do harm to the animal or to themselves,” Griffin said. “Stress or habituation over time can lead to a management action that results in their being killed.”
People who approach wild animals aren’t brave; they are deluded. They might convince themselves that they are neither endangering themselves nor the wildlife, and that the animals don’t mind their presence - a condition that Carol Kline, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, calls “cognitive dissonance.” Similarly, a visitor might not recognize a national park as a truly wild place because it is staffed by rangers and comes with an array of urban amenities, such as restaurants, flush toilets and gift shops that sell plush versions of its residents.
“Even though it is a wild place, it’s a safe place because it’s got an artificial boundary and a name and a parking lot and bathrooms,” Kline said. “It’s been humanized.”
Compassion for animals
We grow up reading about wild animals, from cloth picture books to “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling. We visit them in zoos and watch fictional versions sing, dance and banter in movies and TV. As adults, we may dip our little toe in the animal kingdom by adopting a dog or cat, which, despite its four legs and tail, we treat like a human child.
Exposure to animals wild or domesticated instills a healthy compassion for other species, experts say, but it also blurs the line between worlds.
“Sometimes people associate the love they have for a pet with a wild animal,” Downes said. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Mowgli. I wanted to fly with Tarzan and have a little chimp, one of the most dangerous animals of all. It’ll rip your face off.”
Downes said that people who perceive themselves as do-gooders, such as the visitors who “assisted” the baby elk and bison, may suffer from a “savior complex.” Instead of contacting the proper authorities, they swoop in to help. He added that “saving” one animal can help assuage a sense of guilt for not doing more to protect the planet.
“You have people who can’t wrap their head around what it would take to save a species. So they say, ‘I’m going to rescue this one particular animal,’” he said. “It’s an emotional response.”
Corina Newsome, a conservation scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said compassion can turn us into protective mama bears, especially when we fall under the spell of infant animals.
“It is very natural for a human being of any background to have compassion for another living thing, even more so if we interpret that living thing to be very cute or particularly endearing, which tends to be the case with baby animals.”
Ultimately, national park visitors need to respect their place in the ecosystem, which is on the sidelines, observing and appreciating.
“How many bison have to be put down?” Kline asked. “How many people have to be injured or killed before people really respect the boundaries and consider the wild wild?”