For an ethical and enjoyable wildlife experience, embrace the space

The opportunity to see fascinating species thriving in their natural environments draws many of us to national parks, waterways and wildlife refuges every year. Almost as alluring is the appeal of getting the perfect picture that captures an animal’s beauty, ingenuity or charisma. But our Instagram aspirations must not be achieved at animals’ expense. Experts agree that the best way to protect and respect wildlife is to put our binoculars and zoom lenses to good use by giving these animals plenty of room to roam. We’re visiting their home, after all —and we must respect them and their space.

Most species of wildlife have a healthy fear of humans and will flee, hide or stop engaging in natural behavior if they feel stressed or threatened. Get too close and you’ll not only ruin the photo op but also jeopardize their safety and well-being. Staying far away (and, ideally, out of sight) is more likely to result in an exciting glimpse into how these animals communicate, navigate, work, play, show affection and more.

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It’s also required by law. The National Park Service reminds visitors, “It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten or intentionally disturb wildlife.” The agency recommends that wildlife watchers stay at least 25 yards away from the animals. Some parks require at least a 50-yard buffer. And that number increases to 100 yards for larger predators, such as bears and wolves.

Attempting to interact with wild species hinders them from eating and drinking, finding or building shelters, resting, mating and doing all the things they must do in order to survive. Germs from humans can sicken wildlife, and these animals have been injured and even killed by handling, which also puts humans at risk of being bitten or attacked.

Recently, a group of people in Asheville, North Carolina, pulled two baby bears out of a tree so that they could pose for photos with them. The terrified cubs managed to escape after one of them bit someone in the group. Wildlife biologists found one of the babies cold, wet and suffering in a retention pond. That cub was taken to a rehabilitation center, and authorities said they could only hope that the other one was able to reunite with their mother, as the cubs were too young to survive on their own.

A dolphin who became stranded on the Texas Gulf Coast’s Quintana Beach died after beachgoers reportedly surrounded, harassed and tried to ride her. In North Macedonia, a swan died after a tourist dragged her from a lake to take pictures with her.

And those are only a handful of the reported incidents.

Equally as important as respecting wildlife’s space is properly storing and disposing of food and garbage. It’s vital to avoid unintentionally feeding wildlife and allowing them to become attracted to human food — what the National Park Service calls “food conditioning.” Animals who learn to seek out human food frequently suffer from malnutrition caused by an improper diet, which can result in illness and early death.

When booking a guided wildlife tour in the U.S. or abroad, research tour operators ahead of time to ensure that your provider only engages in safe, humane viewing. Ethical companies maintain sufficient distance from animals, visit during specific times of the day to minimize stress to them, and never harass or encourage people to hold or feed them.

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