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,

Candy