In the heart of Bryce Canyon National Park, I sauntered with a small group of nature lovers through a forest of Ponderosa pines. I was guiding a natural history program, and my companions were nature lovers and travelers with Natural Habitat Adventures & World Wildlife Fund.

Bryce Canyon National Park.

In the middle of my exciting discourse on the geology of the park’s weird hoodoos, I was brusquely interrupted by a spirited golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis). The unusually rotund critter materialized from the forest as soon as it recognized the presence of humans. With apparent gusto, the squirrel brought its twitching nose right up to the leg of my pants, where it began to beg shamelessly for some food to eat.

Unmoved, I scowled at the creature. A stones-throw away, I spied a family of campers cleaning up a picnic. Undoubtedly this furry, forest urchin had already scoured the table for any spare scraps.

“Shoo!” I gruffly barked. “A squirrel like you shouldn’t be begging for handouts!”

As the squirrel scampered off, a compassionate member of our party asked me, with a great deal of solemnity, why is it wrong to feed the animals?

The remainder of our hike turned into a discussion about the problems of feeding wild animals. I felt satisfied that our conversation was educational. However, despite my bad-tempered behavior toward the ground-squirrel, I confessed that even I sometimes feel tempted to share a snack with woodland beggars, but I always resist the urge.

Golden mantled ground squirrel in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Feeding wildlife in the national parks is strictly prohibited. Along our hike, we passed many government signs that read, “DO NOT FEED THE WILDLIFE,” with further details explaining:

Feeding wildlife is actually a form of animal cruelty. Animals that are fed by humans learn to frequent roadsides and parking lots, dramatically increasing their chances of being run over by a careless motorist. Most animals have very specific natural diets and, therefore, specific kinds of digestive bacteria. Being fed human food causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominant in their stomachs. Soon these animals are no longer able to digest their natural foods. They end up starving to death with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along. What could be more cruel?

Our group agreed the park service had done a thorough job expounding upon the evils of passing along snacks to nosy animals. But this begged me to ponder a deeper question: why do we want to feed wild animals in the first place?

Speaking for many people, the compulsion to feed wildlife is real. To what end? Notwithstanding our understanding of the negative impacts that could result from such behavior, even the best of us still occasionally yearn for the romantic experience of “becoming one” with nature, forging some totemic affinity with a squirrel or bird by having it eat from our hands. But why? Why do we feel this desire to make a wild animal bond with us? Is it not enough to leave wildness alone? Must we tame it?

Earlier in the year, I watched a young black bear foraging in a meadow of Hedysarum. Still more than one hundred yards away—a standard “safe” distance from large carnivores—I felt the skin tingle on the nape of my neck. Only moments before, this bulbous, shaggy animal had watched me from the crotch of a pine tree, assessing my intentions after I had stumbled upon it while hiking. After our initial and startling encounter, I gave the bear ample space between its roost and myself and watched as the animal rightly concluded that I was no threat. It then scrambled down from the tree and commenced to feed.

In spite of the danger this bear could pose, I yearned to communicate to the animal that I had nothing but goodwill to offer it. Somehow, I wanted it to understand that I was a “good guy” it could trust. I would have gone so far as to say I was its friend—even its protector as a naturalist! In short, I found myself quickly dreaming up quirky fantasies that were worthy of a Disney movie. I was having a “moment” with the bear. I, a wildlife specialist who knew better about the volatile, anti-anthropomorphic realities of nature, nevertheless briefly caught myself in the act of wanting to tame this animal!

With a snap, I got over that ridiculous fantasy.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, that quixotic delusion was momentarily real. And millions of others also experience it—this yearning for animals to trust us, or need us. Perhaps we are longing to reconnect with the natural world, and our DNA is vaguely reminding us that we also belong in the meadow, foraging for calories, timid and cautious, like the animals. This desire to have a special “moment” with wildlife reminds me of Michelangelo’s tantalizing “Creation of Adam”—if only we reach out our finger (with maybe an unfinished granola bar) we could connect with the universe that gave us Life. Perhaps, by feeding, befriending, or taming nature, we can safely keep our feet planted on civilization’s concrete but still brush against our Creator—but on our own terms.

As a student of wildlife management, I am repeatedly confronted with the paradox of human-wildlife interactions. From backyard bird-feeders to National Elk Refuges, at what point do we allow natural regulation to stop regulating naturally? At what point does a wild animal lose its wildness? If we are feeding it, are we controlling it? Animals don’t need humans. Their multitudes are better off wild and untamed. And yet, maybe we have to feed animals because we need them?

By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Aaron Bott