On Tuesday night, a 2-year-old boy was dragged underwater and drowned by an alligator. The incident happened at the Disney-owned resort where his family was staying, during a hotel-sponsored movie night.
The lagoon where the child was taken was known to host alligators. It had a ‘no swimming’ sign in front of it. While the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife officially advises against wading or swimming outside of designated swimming areas, the child was reported to be wading or walking in or near the water, which made him vulnerable, and the nocturnal creatures tend to hunt at night. Alligator attacks are not necessarily rare in Florida—23 people have been killed in the state as a result of them since 1948. But there’s a possibility that the alligators in the lagoon may have been more aggressive because they were used to interacting with humans.
“The only time we have a situation of serious concern is when someone has been feeding an alligator,” Ricky Flynt, coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ alligator program said an interview with USA Today. “They begin to lose their fear of humans and associate them with a source of food.” An earlier version of the Orlando Sentinel story on the incident included an anonymous comment from a hotel employee stating that guests sometimes would feed the alligators at this location. (The comment was later removed without any update.)
Biologically speaking, it makes sense that the animal would need to have some reason for seeking out the child. Although it’s obvious that most alligators could inflict serious damage on any given human if it wanted to—even the gator in question, which was reportedly as small as four feet in length—gators tend to leave humans alone unless provoked. That’s because humans and alligators have not historically coexisted, at least not on an evolutionary time scale. As their sense of “Can I eat this or will it eat me?” evolved, humans and human-shaped things were not present, and therefore, the animals tend to see us as foreign, which means they lay low or flee. The alligator mindset is: Better safe than sorry. But if an animal is constantly fed by a human, it could reduce the animal’s fear of us. And this may have made the alligator more likely to attack.
That’s part of the reason why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no shortage of materials on policies relating to why feeding and interacting with wildlife is a bad idea. In addition to creating unsafe conditions for humans, alligators almost certainly don’t need our food: Their diet consists of fish, amphibians, and mammals consumed—bones, organs, hair, and all—in just a couple of bites. Every state has a Department of Natural Resources (or an equivalent), each with similar policies and explanations. Every state or national park has extensive signs warning against this.
But for whatever reason, there’s a part of us that has internalized this idea that food is a normal, harmless way for us to interact with wildlife. Maybe it’s childhood afternoons spent feeding bread to ducks on a pond—bad for the ducks, since grains are typically just a small fraction of their diet. Maybe it’s the ubiquity of squirrels on American college campuses, whose predilection for stealing dining hall food right from under our noses is also not the greatest for the diet of those squirrels.
We have a tendency to think we know what’s best. At the veterinary college I currently attend, baby rabbits are frequently brought into the emergency clinic by panic-stricken animal lovers who find them “abandoned,” unaware of the fact that mother rabbits leave their young for long stretches at a time. At that point, of course, it’s usually too late for newborn rabbits. If the vulnerable young rabbits haven’t been killed by the mishandling of the untrained but concerned citizen, they’re unlikely to last much longer unless the concerned citizen can remember where he found them, and return them to that exact spot. (It’s a myth that a mother rabbit abandons her young if they’ve been handled by humans, but the mother rabbit still needs to know where her young are to care for them.)
When two Yellowstone tourists loaded a baby bison into the back of their SUV last month for fears that the animal was freezing, they were acting on sympathetic impulses to save what they thought was a hurt animal. But the actions were flawed—park officials were forced to euthanize the calf once it became apparent that the herd had rejected it. In a public statement about the incident, Morgan Warthin of the National Parks service wrote that the calf was “causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.” That may have been so, but the appropriate action to take was not to try to help without any knowledge of how to do so.
Whether it’s feeding them, petting them, taking a selfie with them, or “saving them” from unprecedented dangers like cold weather, when you interact with a wild animal, the odds are high that one of you is going to get hurt. Even if you do happen to get away unscathed, the child’s death in Orlando showed that when humans interact with animals (the term that Florida Fish and Wildlife uses is actually “harass”), those animals can lose their fear of humans. And this can end terribly.
The impulse to protect vulnerable wildlife comes from the right place. It’s hard to watch any living creature suffer, and it’s natural to want to engage with impressive and interesting wildlife. But nature is a vast network of infinitely complex forces, relationships, and dependencies, and the cumulative effects of humans interfering incorrectly can cause unfortunate changes in aggression, sociability, and a fundamental ability for the animals to fend for themselves.
When you think you see a hurt animal, the first step should be to call a local vet or rescue shelter to describe the situation. It should not be to intervene. And for the sake of both creature and human, refrain from feeding the wildlife.