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Can You Stop Neighbors From Feeding Dangerous Wild Animals?

A hungry young Black bear rummaging through trash cans along the river bank looking for food.
By Jaclyn Rainey on December 03, 2019 12:00 PM

The short answer: yes, but not by yourself.

As colder temperatures set in across much of the country, wild animals are more likely to dig through trash in search of food, bringing them closer to humans. It is also not uncommon for sympathetic people to offer food to hungry wildlife.

But when you spot a neighbor feeding larger animals that could be dangerous, where is the legal line between a bird feeder and offering dog food to coyotes?

Feeding Wildlife Is Generally Illegal

In general, feeding any wildlife is illegal under animal harassment laws. “Harassment" is legally considered any action that interrupts an animal's “normal behavior patterns," so this includes trapping, petting, or feeding most animals.

Most states also have specific laws regarding “big game" mammals. Even if feeding wildlife is not illegal where you live, it is discouraged for the safety of animals and humans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Note: There are exceptions for most licensed herds or farms, such as protected reindeer herds.

How to Talk to Someone Who Is Illegally Feeding Wildlife

Discussing a wild animal sighting or feeding situation can be awkward, since your neighbor may feel they are being kind or helpful. Be sure not to break any trespassing laws if you want to speak to them in person. To be safe, you can give them a call or send an email, if possible. Politely explain your concerns and listen to their reasoning.

If your neighbor refuses to stop, you can back off and let officials take over. You do not have a legal responsibility to warn your neighbor that you will involve police or wildlife organizations. However, as a courtesy, you can tell them that if they continue feeding wild animals, you will have to report it for the safety of you and the animals.

Keep in mind that spreading rumors, fliers, or social media posts about the person could result in a libel or slander lawsuit against you. If you can't prove what they did, it becomes your word against theirs in court. It is better to let officials handle the situation. 

Where to Report Wild Animal Safety Concerns

Do not take matters into your own hands by going on someone's property or trying to shoo away large animals by yourself – you could end up in the hospital — or in jail for trespassing.

Most local police have a wildlife control unit that can answer questions or step in to help, or you can find the right person to contact through your Wildlife Services State Office.

Note: Cats and dogs are not considered wildlife. You can rescue them, though leaving them food outside can still attract wildlife. Involve your local animal control or animal shelter if you have questions. However, other cute animals like ducks, birds, rabbits, mice, foxes, and raccoons are wildlife and should not be fed or rescued. Find your closest rehabilitation website to learn what you should do when these animals look abandoned or hungry.

Legal Issues From Feeding Wildlife

Worst-case scenarios can occur when wild animals are too close for comfort, though these situations are rare. Some possible legal issues from feeding wildlife can include:

  • A scared animal attacking yourself or nearby humans – resulting in personal injury lawsuits.
  • Being hurt or injured while on someone else's property, which can involve trespassing or property lawsuits.
  • Violating housing codes with something as simple as a bird feeder in your backyard. Check all local ordinances before putting out feeders for birds or squirrels.
  • Being charged with a felony or misdemeanor. Check local laws by selecting your state and searching for terms like “wildlife code" on Findlaw's state code page.

'Tis the Season to Do Good (While Following the Law)

This whole article can sound harsh for animal lovers. Keep in mind the laws and government organizations are there to keep you and all wildlife safe, even if feeding the ducks seems like a cute idea.

The good news is there are safe, legal ways you can help wild animals or encourage a neighbor to switch to a better method of helping wildlife. From backyard conservation to donating to volunteering with wildlife organizations, you (or your neighbor) can make a difference in a safe way.

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