Picture a solitary individual on a park bench at Rocky Point. They love coming to the park, feeling the wind and watching the waves. They bring a little bag of bread crumbs with them to throw to passing seagulls and any other wildlife they may see. Iconic image of serenity and peace, is it not?
Unfortunately, such a seemingly innocent activity is actually quite harmful to that wildlife, and is actually against state law, punishable by a fine up to $500 and even possible jail time.
During their meeting on Oct. 1, Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix – in an attempt to raise awareness about the issue and address certain complaints from pigeon-plagued property owners – sought input into a change to city ordinances that would further restrict the feeding of wild animals in the city.
“Our current [ordinance] prevents feeding only of wild coyotes,” Rix said during the discussion of the ordinance in committee. “This bill…would allow our police officers and animal control officers to enforce DEM regulations and state law, which would also be useful with community police officers to moderate disputes among neighbors.”
Rix said that the feeding of animals, either directly through examples such as outlined above, or indirectly through avenues such as overflowing bird feeders, create an opportunity for scavenging animals, primarily rats, to prosper. He also said the feeding of animals has also contributed to a gathering of pigeons that have been causing property damage and angering residents in a section of his ward.
Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley expressed hesitancy at beefing up a law that would put well-intentioned people in the way of fines or contact with police officers. He asked if the ordinance would essentially outlaw the use of birdfeeders, as it is impossible to prevent some seed from spilling onto the ground through their usage.
“It causes me some concern…that someone could be found to be in violation of an ordinance when they have no intent to violate the ordinance,” Rix said.
Rix said that the intention is to not outlaw residents who utilize bird feeders, but to spread awareness of unintended consequences of directly throwing food on the ground for wildlife.
“Certainly I don’t foresee the police coming out if it’s a one-time incident, but if there is a regular occurrence and if there is a rodent issue in the neighborhood, then certainly the police officer or person enforcing would be able to talk to that person about the scattering of food on the ground,” Rix explained. “That person may be scattering food on the ground to feed, say, wild birds, but in fact that act is serving to feed rodents.”
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said he was concerned with the expansion of the ordinance to include all array of wild animals, and wondered whether it would affect well-intentioned people who feed animals such as ducks, geese and swans.
“I’m just suggesting that maybe there needs to be a little bit more work on this,” he said.
However, as stated above, feeding of all water fowl and avian birds is already against state law, so Rix reiterated that the ordinance would ideally make people more aware that feeding birds food not suited for their digestive systems – like bread – is causing harm to the animals and the environment. He said it would be best to give local authorities more power to enforce the already present state law.
“A large part of the reason why I put this particular language forward is not to expand the authority of the city of Warwick beyond the state or DEM, but to allow Warwick’s community police officers and animal control officer, who do an excellent job, to be able to use their common sense and understanding of neighborly issues in order to resolve some of these disputes inside Warwick without having to call in the state DEM and make it into a bigger issue than need be made,” Rix said.
The ordinance committee agreed to hold the proposed change for further discussion to be held on Nov. 14.
In a follow up call about the ordinance on Wednesday, Rix said that the input from his fellow councilman resulted in him looking more into the proposed change and that he was looking into other options, such as finding a way to enforce the existing state law without changing the ordinance or looking to erect signage in certain public areas reminding people to not feed wild animals.
“It’s the democratic process at work,” Rix said. “The purpose of having these hearings is for open debate.”
According to DEM, feeding wild animals – particularly birds and waterfowl – can cause significant harm to the animals themselves and the environment. Animals fed consistently by humans can cause them to become overly concentrated in certain bodies of water or near highways and airports, potentially causing serious accidents.
Feeding birds can also contribute to beach closures, as a large collection of birds in places near the ocean – such as Oakland Beach – can result in large buildups of bird feces being washed into the ocean and causing elevated bacteria levels. This ban on feeding, outlined in Title 20 of the RI General Laws, extends to all wild animals, such as turkeys, coyotes and bears.