What Goes Wrong When We Feed the Animals
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 16, 2013
One time in Panama, I was having dinner on the patio at a restaurant when the diners at a nearby table started to get rowdy. They were American soldiers, in uniform, and clearly drunk. The object of their delight was a large frog, which one of them was clutching in the meaty grip of his left hand. With his right hand, he was easing beer down the frog’s throat, eliciting waves of laughter from his pals.
I finished my dinner without appetite and slunk out, embarrassed by my species and a little ashamed not to have stuck up for the frog. He was having a very bad, almost certainly terminal, night. And I didn’t want to join him.
Feeding the animals seems to be one of our universal impulses, whether we do it maliciously, like those soldiers, or in the misguided belief that we are doing them a favor. Either way, the animals generally suffer.
For instance: Almost 6 million people will visit the Bahamas over the coming year, most of them in the next few months. Local tour operators will convince many of them that feeding the iguanas is a good way to get close to nature. Some operators will even bill it as “ecotourism.”
The problem, says Charles Knapp, an iguana specialist at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, is that the Northern Bahamian rock iguana is one of the world’s most endangered lizards, with a dwindling population of just 5,000 individuals in the wild. Its habitat, on a handful of small islands, or cays, is threatened by development, introduced species, logging, the pet trade, and occasional hunting for the dinner table. Then along come the tour operators, filling boats with tourists who visit and scatter food on all but the two cays that are too difficult for a landing.
When Knapp first started studying the iguanas 20 years ago, they were skittish and rarely seen on beaches, preferring the island interior. Then, after the tour business got started about five years ago, he landed on a remote beach one day to find iguanas gathering all around him. Humans were suddenly a source of food rather than something to be feared, leaving the iguanas vulnerable “to be taken and smuggled for the pet trade or to be eaten,” Knapp says. A couple of tourists from the Midwest visiting by sailboat must have felt like 17th-century sailors picking up dodoes. They threw some on the grill, says Knapp, and posted the photos on Facebook, leading almost immediately to their arrest. The fine was nominal, and they soon went free.
Feeding causes other problems that may not be obvious to well-meaning visitors, according to a new study coauthored by Knapp in the journal Conservation Physiology. The tour operators started out feeding bread to the iguanas, then switched to grapes, after conservationists suggested they should at least try to approximate the iguanas’ normal diet of leaves, flowers, and fruits.
But the study shows that tourist-fed animals display a range of nutritional deviations from their wild counterparts, including elevated glucose and deficient potassium levels, reflecting a diet dominated by grapes. Some also have higher cholesterol levels, probably because tourists sometimes toss them meat. It’s as if they have switched overnight from the Pleistocene to the modern Western diet, with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and perhaps even gout hovering eagerly in the wings.
The study found that bringing together the normally territorial iguanas on the same beach does not elevate their stress levels. But being in close proximity to one another means that 100 percent of the tourist-fed animals now carry internal parasites. It also makes the entire population more vulnerable to an epidemic.
The realistic solution, says Knapp, isn’t to push for a ban on the iguana-feeding tours. “We wouldn’t get anywhere with the government because the islands depend on tourism,” and the iguana tours generate jobs and revenue. “And we wouldn’t be able to enforce it because many of the islands where the iguanas live are too remote.”
But if government officials see the iguana population as a valuable resource, he says, they will act to ensure its continued survival. That could mean getting tour operators to switch to the sort of nutritionally balanced food pellets zoos use for their lizard populations. It should also mean keeping some of the islands free from feeding tours, so there is at least a baseline for what a natural iguana population should look like.
Meanwhile, for tourists everywhere, the answer is pretty simple: Don’t feed the animals. Whatever the tour operator says, and whether the animals are iguanas, stingrays, sharks, dolphins, or any of dozens of other animals willing to grovel for a handout, call this thought to mind: The damage may take a little longer to show up, but you will be doing much the same thing as the soldiers in Panama pouring beer down a frog’s throat.