Archived Outdoors

Wildland etiquette: The right and wrong way to view wildlife

By Kathryn Sherrard • Contributing Writer

Do you like to visit a state or national park? Why? For thousands of us, it is the chance to see wildlife. People flock to see bears, elk, moose, deer, wild turkeys, foxes, coyotes, bison and alligators. Other animals that are often spotted include raccoons, reptiles and amphibians.

If you come along at the right time, some of these critters may be seen from the car. Early morning, just after dawn, and late afternoon around dusk are generally the best viewing times. But if you want to increase your chances of spotting elusive animals, you usually need to get out of the vehicle and explore on foot. Hiking trails often lead into more remote areas where creatures can be sighted.

When you are in a natural area, remember that this is the animals’ home and you are an intruder. Parks have solid reasons for their rules. Be sure that you read, understand and follow them.


Don’t feed the wildlife

One of the most important rules in every park is the one that prohibits feeding wildlife. When humans feed wild animals, they soon may become habituated and lose their natural fear of people. Quickly learning that it is easier to obtain human food than it is to forage, an animal continues to visit human food sources, often with tragic results.

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There is a familiar saying pertaining to food-conditioned bears: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” When a bear becomes habituated and continues to seek human food, eventually it will cross paths with a person who is fearful of seeing wildlife up close, or one who is hunting, or it will cross roadways and risk being killed by a vehicle. The same principle holds true for many other animals that are easily habituated when fed, including raccoons, opossums and squirrels.

When you are hiking or camping in a national or state park, the “Leave no Trace” ethic is critically important. As the name implies, this means that you leave everything as you found it and do not alter the area.

It goes without saying that littering is taboo, but so also is carelessness with food preparation. If you are cooking, use only pre-existing campfire rings, and be sure there is no remnant of food or food wrappings in the fire ring after you are finished. Such remnants can lure wildlife into the area and lead to habituation. Better yet, use a camp stove rather than building a fire.


Keep your distance

Many of us hope to observe and photograph the animals we see. Suppose that you spot a group of deer in a meadow area. How near may you get to them in order to see them better? How closely can you approach in order to get a picture?

The answer to these questions is that we should not get as close as we might like. Unless you are a serious photographer with a long telephoto lens, you’ll be better off using your binoculars rather than your camera. In fact, the rule of thumb is that you should not approach wildlife any closer than 50 yards — in other words, half the length of a football field.

A good way to gauge your distance is this: if the animals you are approaching change their behavior in any way, it means you are too close. For example, if deer are grazing in a meadow, and as you draw nearer they stop and look up — that is a change in behavior. They are signaling that they are uncomfortable with your presence and that you should retreat. This gauge of acceptable distance can be used in reference to other wildlife as well.

By the way, exactly what is wildlife? We would all agree that bears, deer, moose, wolves, and bison are wildlife, but does this term refer only to the large mammals, or “charismatic mega fauna,” as they are often called? The answer to this question is, of course, no.

Wildlife includes any creature that is not (or at least shouldn’t be) dependent on humans for the necessities of life. The broad, generalized term ”wildlife” also refers to birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even insects.

We may sight wildlife when we are engaged in outdoor activities such as picnicking and nature walks in a local area. As in the park scenario above, we need to remember that we are visitors in the animals’ habitat and act responsibly.

Animals such as raccoons and squirrels may have learned that they can find food in a popular picnic area. They may have formed the habit of approaching humans to beg for a handout. Aren’t they cute? It may be tempting to give in and try to lure them closer by tossing or holding out a morsel of food.

This is not a good idea. Not only will it further the habituation, which has already begun, but it can be dangerous. Raccoons are known carriers of rabies, and a bite from a rabid animal may have very unpleasant consequences.

Suppose you are driving along in the country and spot deer at the edge of the woods or wild turkeys in a field. Test your knowledge. Would it be acceptable to stop the car and watch the animals? Would it be OK to get out of your car and move closer?

Let’s go back to our rule of thumb. If you were at least 50 yards from the animals, it would be fine to stop and watch. If you have binoculars in the car with you, you will be able to see them better. The answer to the second question, of course, would depend on how far away your car is from the animals.

Again, if you get out of the car and the animals change their behavior, they are communicating that you are too close and they are nervous or uncomfortable with your presence.

The next time you are in a State Park, National Park, or Wildlife Refuge, pay attention to what the animals are telling you by watching their behavior, and you will have an experience that will be safe and enjoyable for you and for them.

Kathryn Sherrard is a nature lover and wildlife watcher who lives in Franklin. She is a member of the Elk Bugle Corps that educates visitors to the Cataloochee Valley section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about elk behavior and viewing etiquette. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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