Metro Parks is getting serious about visitors who feed raccoons, geese, ducks and other wild residents of parks.
Starting in mid-July, off-duty officers will patrol the Point Defiance and Wapato parks, issuing $532 fines to patrons feeding the wildlife. Before the patrols begin, park staff are working to educate patrons on the dangers of wildlife feeding by distributing more than 5,000 information cards.
“This is not about enforcement. This is about education,” Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson said.
In Tacoma’s parks, feeding wildlife is a violation of city code and a Class 1 infraction. Metro Parks has posted signage and discouraged feeding for years, but the agency hasn’t taken steps to enforce the city law. The new patrols of the parks are a last-ditch effort to swiftly curb the feeding issue, which has prompted some animal populations to swell beyond healthy limits.
“What you think is innocent is really detrimental to wildlife,” Johnson said.
Last fall, raccoon overpopulation in Point Defiance Park led to an outbreak of canine distemper disorder. While canine distemper doesn’t pose a risk to humans, it can infect unvaccinated dogs, Parks Superintendent Marina Becker said.
It also kills the raccoons. When infected, the raccoons become disoriented, go blind and eventually, unable to feed themselves, die, Becker said.
“It’s not a pretty death,” she said. “I know from seeing what they look like when they’ve got it.”
Overpopulation causes environmental problems as well. In Wapato Park, an influx of geese has contaminated the water. More than 200 geese were living in the park last summer, Becker estimated.
“They poop a lot,” she said. “It’s just nasty.”
The park has far fewer geese these days, thanks to the trained dogs Metro Parks hired this spring to harass them. The dogs chased the geese off the park grounds until they settled somewhere else to molt. Once geese begin molting, they can’t fly back, Becker said.
The park’s lake is cleaner too. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department checks Wapato for E. coli regularly. On May 21, there were 242 coliform forming units per 100 milliliters in Wapato Lake, according to Health Department measurements. The number had dropped to less than 10 units by June 18.
Ideally, without hand feeding from patrons, wildlife in the park can live off of natural diets and control their own populations, Becker said.
When wild animals become accustomed to handouts, they can become aggressive toward humans, she said. Human food also causes problems for the animals themselves, robbing the young of the nutrients they need. For example, goslings fed with human food develop deformed bone structures and can’t fly, Becker said.
“They’re wildlife, and they’re meant to eat natural food,” she said.
Becker is more concerned with teaching park patrons how to protect wildlife than issuing tickets.
“In a perfect world we don’t have one ticket issued,” she email@example.com