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We humans have always been fascinated by wildlife, but in some cases that fascination can go too far. Feeding wildlife is not only an interesting pastime, but it is also big business. Bird feeding alone is a $4-billion-a-year industry, and that's just in the U. S.

There is a controversy brewing over the pros and cons of feeding wild animals, with growing evidence that feeding wildlife has negative consequences to the very creatures people seek to help.

One of the main issues revolves around the food that's offered to them. Mary Jo Sicurella is Humane and Wildlife Educator at the SPCA. "Sometimes people aren't feeding them what the animals naturally need," she said. "People like to feed birds bread and things like that, but, unfortunately, that's like us eating Cheese Puffs. You know, it's really not very healthy."

Adds Matt Zymanek of Hawk Creek Wildlife Center: "They will get used to free hand outs. It's like if your mom makes dinner and she makes liver, but there's a whole cupboard full of cookies, you'll eat the cookies instead of eating what you should be eating, and what's healthy for you. So they prefer to eat the stuff that people give them."

Especially in the winter, the perception may be that animals struggle to find food, and while that may hold a grain of truth, Zymanek says, that's not giving enough credit to wild creatures that have spent eons perfecting survival in all conditions.

"During the winter, it is tougher for them to find food, but you don't need to feed them. Only the strongest will survive, and that's the balance of nature, unfortunately. If there's too many animals that survive the winter then all of a sudden we deal with other problems in the spring. They're in neighborhoods eating everybody's bushes, there are collisions with cars."

Sicurella agrees: "Even feeding birds, there are things you need to know about, and making sure if you start feeding them, that you feed them through the winter, it can affect their natural foraging abilities. Actually, planting flowers and plants is much better than … providing the food."

There's also the issue of disease. Most animals tend to disperse over wide areas, but attracting them to a single food source can have tragic results. "When animals are being fed, you get a large number of animals in a small area so they congregate, and disease can spread really rapidly through it," said Zymanek. "That's why --bird feeders especially -- if you're feeding birds they need to be cleaned out on a regular basis."

These are just a few of the issues surrounding this debate. As with any interaction with Mother Nature, education is the portal to taking proper responsibility for the world around us.

"We know that people love animals," says Sicurella, "and they want to help, and the best thing for them is to really do your research, and find out what's best for the animals."

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