An elk herd in Arizona’s Hualapai Mountain Park may have forgotten that they were elk, not bears, when they crashed a family picnic for food and ended up attacking two visitors last week. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department (GFD), the attack was unprovoked and likely caused by the elk becoming too familiar with humans.
“They were not feeding the animals, but this encounter was clearly the result of past behaviors of the public.” said agency spokesperson Zen Mocarski in a press release.
Officials said that the elk encircled a family around a picnic table seeking food, even going as far as kicking the visitors with their hooves, injuring a young girl and boy. The family managed to escape the encounter with little more than bloody noses and other minor injuries.
“The family tried to keep the table between themselves and the elk, but the elk continued to move around the family,” said Brandon Oktay, park superintendent. “The park is a place to visit and enjoy, and I’m disappointed this family had to experience something like this. Those children were frightened, but the parents declined medical assistance and the injuries appear to be minor, which is the good news.”
Oktay indicated that the incident could have been much worse. Elk are large and immensely powerful animals. A kick from an adult elk is more than enough to shatter bone, as more than one predator has learned after attempting to confront an elk herd.
Mocarski said that the animals were likely looking for food handouts.
“The message is stop feeding wildlife,” Mocarski said. “Wild animals are supposed to disperse and forage, but some people mistakenly believe the animals need assistance. Feeding wildlife is not an act of selflessness, it’s a selfish act that has now resulted in two children getting injured. This has to stop.”
Animals can become reliant on human-supplied junk food and wildlife officers occasionally find elk rummaging through trash cans for a tasty morsel. Despite statewide ordinances against feeding wildlife, park visitors will still sneak the odd snack—like pretzels—to elk, establishing humans as a source of food. This not only removes the animal’s natural fear of humans, but can also be unhealthy for wildlife. The GFD pointed to a case in 1995 when two dozen deer were put down after it was discovered that they lost the ability to properly digest vegetation since they were hooked on junk food.
“The bottom line is that things like chips or pretzels, which are not particularly good for humans, are certainly not good for wildlife,” Mocarski said. “Neither are the hay bales visible throughout the community. Allow these animals to forage naturally. They should have a natural fear of humans, not expect a handout.”
Image courtesy Howard Ignatius/US Fish and Wildlife