Bam Bam the Ram: Is Feeding Wildlife Ever OK?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 22, 2014 12

Sheep are social creatures. These two rams in Yellowstone National Park are getting a good scratch from each other’s horns. ©Henry Holdsworth

We humans have developed—intentionally or not—a wide variety of methods for killing off species: overhunting, natural habitat destruction, or active extermination to satisfy agricultural, mining, drilling, fracking or other special interests. Sometimes, even, our weapon of choice is what we’d normally think of as “kindness”: feeding.

When we feed wild animals, the result can be just as lethal as if we had poisoned them. The recent story of one, wild bighorn sheep in Wyoming is a case in point. What we don’t often connect with this issue, though, is the commonplace wildlife feeding that goes on at bird feeders in millions of our backyards and at countless duck ponds in numerous parks every day.

So, is feeding wild animals always wrong?

When candy kills

Bighorn sheep are strong, muscular animals, weighing up to 300 pounds. But their physical statures belie their fragile physiologies; they are unusually susceptible to viruses that cause pneumonia—pathogens normally latent in domestic sheep but almost always fatal to wild bighorns. Since bighorn sheep are social creatures, if one of them catches pneumonia, almost all of them will.

While strong and muscular, bighorn sheep have fragile physiologies. ©Henry Holdsworth

But Bam Bam, a bighorn sheep in Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming, had even more to worry about: acid rain. Measurements recently taken on Middle Mountain of the Wind River Mountains where Bam Bam and his herd lived showed dangerously low levels of selenium, a critical diet component that strengthens muscles and bolsters the animals’ ability to fend off disease. Unfortunately, fossil-fuel pollution is causing radical chemical changes in alpine soils; the rain that falls in the high altitudes on Bam Bam’s mountain is so acidic it burns the eyes. By 2008, Sinks Canyon had only two sheep—rams—left.

Once the rest of their herd was gone, both of the remaining bighorns started coming down the slopes and moving closer to the park’s visitor center. One of them had a habit of using his horns to butt car bumpers; and after a video of his actions got a lot of play on YouTube, he was dubbed “Bam Bam.” By 2009, only Bam Bam continued to be spotted.

That summer, Bam Bam began to have more and more interactions with humans. Park personnel watched as one man set his infant child on Bam Bam’s back for a photo. Visitors routinely fed him candy bars, hamburgers, licorice, peanuts and potato chips. In January 2013, Bam Bam was found dead in a pasture.

A necropsy showed that Bam Bam was seven years old, several years short of the typical bighorn sheep’s lifespan of nine to 12 years. It was determined that the cause of death was reticulorumenitis and complications, including acidosis, dehydration and electrolyte disturbances. In the end, Bam Bam didn’t succumb to pneumonia or acid rain; what killed him was the peanuts and unusual foods stuck in his rumen.

When bird food and bread turn bad

Most of us are tempted to feed wild animals because it gives us a chance to see them up-close and to feel as if we’re saving them from starvation by providing an extra bit of food.

Some say feeding birds involves little risk of harming them. ©John T. Andrews

But water, shelter and naturally available food are the three things that control how many animals there should be in any given area, a measurement known as carrying capacity. When people leave food out, more animals are encouraged to relocate into that area, putting additional pressure on the other two resources, water and shelter. This overcrowding can lead to fighting between animals, life-threatening wounds, the spread of diseases and a quicker depletion of the obtainable water, shelter and food, causing starvation or death by exposure.

Tens of millions of Americans, however, have backyard bird feeders. Millions more hand out bits of bread to ducks at ponds around the country. Is that as dangerous as feeding a bighorn sheep a candy bar or a hamburger?

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, feeding birds or squirrels involves little risk of harming them. Venerable organizations, such as Audubon and BBC Wildlife Magazine, even offer suggestions on how to attract wild birds to your home with food.

Some would argue, however, that when you feed birds, you put them at greater risk of predation and disease. Birds perched on phone or power lines waiting to take their turn at a feeder does not go unnoticed by hawks searching for their next meal. When a sick animal arrives at any sort of feeding station, it can spread its disease to many more animals than it would under normal conditions. Ducks used to bread handouts become more susceptible to disease, malnutrition, overcrowding and pollution.

When deciding whether or not to feed wildlife, most of us fall somewhere on a scale that has Bam Bam on one end and backyard birds on the other. Where do you stand within that range? Is feeding wildlife ever OK?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Victoria Wagner Ross August 10, 2014 at 11:17 am - Reply

    People forget that animals cannot be fed the junk food of humans. Birds choke from bubble gum. All grass feeding animals need selenium and the shortage has increased during the past twenty years. Climate issues will only increase with the imbalance of fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere raining acid rain back into the oceans and on land.

    Thank U for this article on awareness to the animals and their needs.

  2. Andrew Blake July 26, 2014 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Yes, otherwise you exclude all conservation projects which provide food indirectly. Irresponsible feeding? NO NO NO. #birdsofprey

  3. Vernon Swanpoel July 25, 2014 at 6:16 am - Reply

    This certainly is a topic I’ve given a lot of thought. I work as a tour guide in Africa, and we have massive problems with wildlife feeding in parks.

    I’ve seen it be bad not just for the animals, but in cases of dangerous game, there are cases where it has been fatal for people.

    I think scale is a huge factor. In a conservation area visited by thousands, there just isn’t any room for feeding wild animals at all. I just can’t be controlled. I agree as well with what other commenters have said about household feeding.

    I do know of some lodge managers who in isolated areas feed one or two select birds or animals, and I think in those cases it might be okay. But on the whole, I cringe whenever I see wildlife feeding of any kind.

  4. Christine Hass, Ph.D. July 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Nice article. I’ve spent much of my scientific career dealing with this issue – starting with bighorn sheep. There almost seems to be a drive among humans to feed animals. I’m not sure where it comes from, but it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t feed birds or feral cats or coyotes. I disagree that bird feeding is harmless – I think it favors “weedy” birds like house sparrows and Eurasian collared-doves over native birds. Putting food out for feral cats often leads to problems with skunks and raccoons. Overall, it’s a bad idea to feed wildlife, most of what you feed them is not good for them and it throws off the natural balance.

  5. Kathy Kunce July 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Never. And my motto is “real photographers don’t bait wildlife.”

  6. Patricia Follweiler July 24, 2014 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    The best thing we can do for wildlife is protect their current habitat, create new habitat and leave them alone.

    As for birds, they live so closely to humans that I don’t have a problem with feeding the birds with proper seeds/fruits/insects. However, don’t just feed during the winter, also provide for them during the rest of the year. If you make them dependent on your food source, then be responsible for providing it.

    Again, planting the correct trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers will provide natural feed for the birds.

    My big warning — keep your cats indoors! They are the number 1 predator of birds, rabbits and other small animals in the wild.

  7. Lawan Bukar Marguba July 24, 2014 at 10:25 am - Reply

    As much as it is getting extremely difficult for wildlife populations to have the ideal kind of undisturbed and unpolluted habitats free from humans these days, it is not advisable to feed wildlife with any sort of food, junk or not. Feeding wildlife, unless it is in very extreme conditions will be not be advisable because doing so will cause them to lose their wild edge.

  8. David Hammant July 24, 2014 at 5:52 am - Reply

    Perhaps there are a couple of ways of looking at this? Providing natural foods, natural to the environment of the animal, especially in bad weather could be seen as a small compensation for the destruction we bring.

    However providing processed food as a sort of ‘lets be kind to the cute animal’ is never right for a number of reasons;
    – it encourages the animal to equate humans with food instead of danger. Not good for the animal as the next ‘human reaction’ is to shoot the pest animal.
    – Animals are encouraged to become dependant on un-natural foods, affecting their behaviour patterns.

    And surely it is an act of wanton cruelty to feed any unsuspecting animal on McDonalds.

  9. Leno Davis July 23, 2014 at 11:55 am - Reply

    I think it depends on the situation. some feeding can bolster numbers during recovery processes. For example, when new trees are planted in an area to restore habitat for endangered birds, the lag time between planting and fruiting may be too long for the bird population. The feeding stations can also provide important population information for animals such as birds, sharks, wild cats and bears.
    In urban areas, the natural habitat and food resources are permanently removed, so human food sources may be the only recourse for some bird species. there may be other special circumstances where feeding the correct type of food, under expert made guidelines may be appropriate, but Junk food? never.

  10. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna July 23, 2014 at 5:53 am - Reply

    I am surprised Candice, for wherever I have been there has always been these ominous signs: “PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS.” But I suppose some people may think they are doing these “poor” animals a favour by offering them what they eat, not what the animals eat. That sort of problem is hard to just go. better increase the distance between wild animals and people in parks.

  11. Mandy July 22, 2014 at 10:36 am - Reply

    I think it is situationally based. For example we do not feed the birds here except sometimes food during a hard winter. We also used to put out the occasional unsalted peanuts to chipmunks when I was growing up (we no longer do this though). We do not feed bread to ducks and we keep our trash cans covered so animals can not get in them. This all said I do have a compost pile and although I have not noticed any animals getting into it thus far, I have to add that the chance of that might also alter their diets in someway, but that is a practice I will not budge on. One year we did get cracked corn to feed to a female black duck that had gotten lost and wound up in the swamp out back of our house. I would also do that again as she did eventually leave but it helped her stay alive in a situation that might have otherwise resulted in her death. Like I said it is all situational and I also believe view point has a part in it too. Humans are more developed (and for better or worse) that means we can alter our environments. I think that in the majority of cases this will be detrimental to at least one local species (such is the case of landfills, garbage, and yes even my compost pile), however all of life including human society is built of off trade-offs and awareness. I think education is important to and if more people were educated on the effects of what somethings that these animals are eating does to them (and as a result the ecosystem) then they would not do it. I think this is a great topic to bring up and there are many sides to it. Thank you for this article.

  12. Marilyn Anne Campbell July 22, 2014 at 6:35 am - Reply

    I actually think feeding wildlife can be a good thing IF (and this is a very big if!) it’s done with appropriate foods and handled responsibly. No one should be in a park handing out snacks to an animal like Bam Bam. But many people have little to no connection to the natural world, and if setting up a bird feeder that they keep clean and stock with quality food can create an awareness of and appreciation for wildlife, I’m all for it.

    I think a problem arises when adults want to start feeding, but have no background knowledge, so they just grab a bag of white bread (and their kids, if they have them) and head out to the nearest duck pond. In contrast, there’s a large park near me where the nature centre shows children how to hand feed the local chickadees with Black oil sunflower seeds, as their parents happily take photos of the encounters. That’s the kind of guided, controlled feeding I think is ideal. It would also be great for schools to set-up bird feeders and make it a school-year-long project for classes to take turns filling and maintaining the feeding station, with one knowledgeable staff member supervising throughout the year.

    So, as is so often the case, the wildlife feeding question seems to come down to the importance of educating the public.

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