Hikers learn the hard way that elk aren't afraid to bite the hands that feed them

Cow elk eating grass
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Feeding elk at US National Parks is illegal, and for good reason – doing so is dangerous for both the animals and your fingers.

As the summer hiking season gets underway, a video posted this week on Instagram account TouronsOfNationalParks is a timely reminder to leave elk and other animals well alone, no matter how tame they may appear to be. In the clip, which you can see below, a group of visitors are enthusiastically petting and feeding a cow elk at the roadside.

The animal seems unfazed, but according to wildlife photographer Vic Schendel, who recorded the incident at Rocky Mountain National Park, "Just moments after taking this video, the cow elk bit off the end of a young boy's finger as he was feeding it."

People may think they're helping wild animals by feeding them, but it can actually be very harmful. Not only is there a risk of being attacked (even seemingly docile animals can become aggressive if they feel threatened), being fed by visitors means they are more likely to seek out human food in future, increasing the odds of a dangerous close encounter.

They can also lose their natural wariness of humans – a phenomenon called habituation. If a habituated or food-conditioned animal is deemed to be a risk to public safety, it may need to be put down.

Being hand-fed also means animals are less likely to seek out their natural diet, which can have disastrous effects on their health.

"Most animals have very specific natural diets and therefore specific kinds of digestive bacteria," explains the National Park Service (NPS). "Being fed human food causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominant in their stomachs. Soon these animals are no longer able to digest their natural foods.

"They end up starving to death with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along. What could be crueler?"

Elk safety

When it comes to wildlife, the NPS advises that the best relationship is a long-distance relationship. Visitors should stay at least 75ft (23 meters) from elk and bighorn sheep, and at least 120ft (36 meters) from moose, mountain lions, and bears. People should never try to distract animals or get a reaction from them.

"The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video is posing a new threat to wildlife and humans," warns the NPS.

"Trigger-happy tourists have started to provoke animals, and in some instances, alter their behaviors as a result. Quietly watching from a distance can be even more rewarding than getting the perfect shot."

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 15 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better), usually wearing at least two sports watches.