Call it tough love.
No matter how charming you find those web-footed ambassadors that make their home around Naperville’s Riverwalk, don’t be fooled by their pleas for food.
The Naperville Park District has printed up several hundred pocket cards to hand out as a reminder to people that feeding ducks, geese and other wildlife can be hazardous to their health and habitat, and possibly humans’ health and habitat as well.
District staff members emphasized that there’s no great crisis of overfed fowl, yet. Carl Schnibben, chief of the park police force, said he ordered 500 of the informational cards after a resident suggested it would be helpful to spread awareness of the reasons why people should let animals take care of feeding themselves.
“It seemed like a very simple thing to do, (to) remind people not to feed the critters,” Schnibben said. “It’s never been a gigantic issue. We’ve never issued a ticket for it or anything of that nature.”
Kevin Finnegan, director of parks, said the agency is taking a proactive approach to the issue by circulating the reminders. He said visitors to the Riverwalk, and any of the district’s 140 parks, need to resist the temptation to share bits of bread or other goodies with the animals. It can be dangerous.
“It’s becoming a nuisance, and we want to try to head it off prior to it becoming a problem,” he said. “It’s mostly geese, and once they lose their fear of humans — particularly in April, May and June, when they’re mating — they can become very aggressive toward humans.”
Also of concern, he said, is the way a well-fed wild creature can run the risk of wearing out its welcome mat. It can affect the natural order.
“Geese are migratory,” Finnegan said. “But once they find a place where there’s a reliable food source, so they don’t have to go looking for their food, they’re going to stay.”
That means more than just extra work for those who have to clean up the animals’ waste. Left unchecked, broad-scale feeding of wildlife can put local biosystems out of balance, possibly even giving rise to bacteria that can sicken humans.
“That’s the worst-case scenario, and we want to stay a step ahead of that,” Finnegan said.
Park District police are handing out the reminders, as they patrol the Riverwalk, and extras are available at the agency’s headquarters, 320 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville.
So far, the message appears to be getting through with little resistance.
“Everybody says the folks they give it to have all been receptive,” Schnibben said.
He recognizes that people don’t always know they’re doing something they shouldn’t. When his own five kids and 10 grandchildren were little, Schnibben said, he didn’t discourage them from tossing food to their feathered friends.
“Wildlife experts now tell us it’s not a good idea to do that, so we thought it would be a good idea to share that information,” he said. “I think a lot of people just don’t think about it. They do the same things I did with my kids.”
Finnegan also understands that people mean well.
“Naturally it’s just a human instinct to feel that you’re helping out,” he said. “But in reality you’re not.”