Latching a padlock onto public fixtures has been a symbol for everlasting love around the world as couples seal their commitments to one another and throw the keys into open waters.
The origins of the tradition are largely unknown but believed to have become popular in Rome after the 2007 Italian film “I Want You,” when a couple sealed locks onto a Roman bridge. The tradition has made its way to bridges, fences and gates across the world, including the Pont des Artes in Paris, the Makartsteg Bridge in Salzburg and Napa Valley Wine Train Love Lock Bridge.
It’s even become popular at Grand Canyon National Park, where officials have recently grown increasingly concerned about tourists latching “love locks” onto metal fences across the park and throwing keys into the water. In a Facebook post last month, officials said the practice is a form of “littering” and “graffiti” and puts animals throughout the canyon at risk. Photos showed rangers removing these locks.
“Love is strong, but it is not as strong as our bolt cutters,” the post read.
While there are several rare and endangered species at the park, such as big-eared bats and Kaibab swallowtail butterflies, according to the Grand Canyon Trust, the National Park Service is most concerned about California condors in this case. The Facebook post noted an incident where a condor had to be operated on after swallowing coins. An X-ray image showed objects stuck in the vulture’s digestive tract.
“Condors are curious animals and much like a small child will investigate strange things they come across with their mouths. Condors love shiny things,” the post said. “They will spot a coin, a wrapper, or a shiny piece of metal, like a key from a padlock that has been tossed into the canyon and eat it.”
California condors are the largest land birds in North America with a wingspan of more than 9 feet. The birds have been listed as endangered since 1967. Their population has increased thanks to captive breeding and as of 2022, there are 561 condors in the wild and captivity, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are still dying, however, due to lead poisoning, consuming trash and being electrocuted by power lines, the National Park Service says.
John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States, said sealing locks and throwing keys in the canyon may seem harmless, but inadvertently puts wildlife like condors at risk.
The message from the National Park Service is one of the latest in a string of warnings to tourists who have sought to make their mark in parks in dangerous ways. Travelers have been seen taking selfies with animals, harassing or getting too close to wildlife, licking psychedelic toads, cutting down trees or wading into geothermal pools.
In June, the agency issued a plea for visitors to respect the wildlife they encounter at these parks in response to “actions” by visitors that resulted in a wildlife death.
“Those kinds of behaviors are connected to this idea of not really understanding and respecting the natural space in the way that we should,” Griffin said. “It’s all part of not following or understanding these rule, and not having the right frame of mind or intelligence we need to respect these spaces.”
In 2018, officials at Zion National Park posted a similar warning after a viral trend led to visitors to stack rocks and post photos under the hashtags #RockStacks and #StoneStacking. Officials said in a Facebook post that moving rocks around can expose soil to wind, erode water supplies, disturb animals living under rocks or confuse hikers while they venture through trails.
“Leaving your mark, whether carving your initials in a tree trunk, scratching a name on a rock, or stacking up stones is simply vandalism,” the Park Service wrote in the post. “Visitors who build cairns probably don’t look at building cairns as vandalism since rocks can be unstacked easily, but moving rocks around still can lead to resource damage.”
Griffin puts rock stacking and “love locks” in the same category because they don’t appear to be harmful at first glance, but can threaten the parks.
“We should have a reverence for nature and understand the rules while we’re there and not just make a human statement of professing our love for another, or just putting our own mark on the space where it absolutely doesn’t belong,” he said. “We’re there to appreciate these incredible, natural features, and incredible array of wild animals.”