The Great Squirrel Debate: To Feed or Not to Feed?

person feeding squirrel
The debate rages on: Are you team feed or team no feed? David Mark/Getty Images

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There is a raging debate over whether or not we should feed squirrels. You read that right. It's not a question of whether people love or hate squirrels, but whether feeding the bushy-tailed fur balls is safe for them, as well as the nature in general.

Many people, including wildlife experts, don't think it's a great idea, for a variety of reasons. First, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that human food just isn't good for wild animals, and they can survive just fine on their own. "Wild animals have specialized diets, and they can become malnourished or die if fed the wrong foods. Also, animals cannot distinguish food from wrappers or foil and can get sick eating these items," the USDA site says.

Team No Feed

To make matters worse, when well-intentioned humans start giving squirrels food, they become dependent on those handouts. And if the early bird (they are diurnal) buffet closes, they won't be able to become self-sufficient again.

If generous humans do manage to keep the food supply steady, the happy, lazy squirrels go out and inform their squirrel friends that they've discovered a food paradise. So how is that a problem? That endless food supply attracts more squirrels, none of which have any intention of giving up the good life. An area overpopulated with squirrels can mean an increase in diseases (like Lyme disease) that can be transmitted to pets, humans and other rodents (like more squirrels). However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's extremely rare for squirrels to have rabies or to pass rabies to pets or humans in the United States.

But still, befriending squirrels can be problematic because they can lose their innate fear of humans and become aggressive. As lovable as they may look, squirrels have sharp teeth and nails that are not cuddle-friendly.

If the safety of people and pets isn't enough to sway you, then maybe property damage will. Southern Living magazine's Grumpy Gardener columnist (aka Steve Bender) makes no attempt to hide his disdain for squirrels. "I hate squirrels. Hate them, hate, hate them, hate them!" When squirrels invade his yard, he puts 100 percent of the blame on those who feed squirrels. He even goes as far as suggesting they're good for nothing except eating. (Yikes!)

But Bender is right when he says the critters can be destructive. Ask most electricians and they'll tell you squirrels and other small rodents like them are responsible for a lot of the damage to wires and insulation in attics. And they can also do some serious destruction to siding, as well. Bender suggests that is all directly related to feeding squirrels.

Team Feed

But, not everyone agrees with him, and there are a lot of people who enjoy watching squirrels go about their daily squirrel business. According to FeedingNature.com, many people love to feed squirrels simply because it brings animals to their property, and feeding them also gives the rodents another source of food during the harsh winter months.

The Humane Society of the United States takes a moderate position on the debate. Some people will let squirrels take what they want from bird feeders and that's fine. The best compromise, the Humane Society says, is to give a little for the squirrels and more for the birds.

If you're still undecided on your squirrel feeding position, the local, federal or state government may decide for you, especially in public parks where feeding squirrels is often illegal. So, unless you live in Loveland, Colorado, the decision is yours. Surely we can all coexist peacefully. After all, we are all mammals, aren't we?