Elk's Sad Tale a Reminder Not to Feed Wildlife

Elk are getting too comfortable with humans — and there's a terrible price to pay for that. Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock

An elk that butted heads with a photographer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was euthanized on Nov. 15 after another photographer’s video of the encounter went viral, according to USA Today.

The video amassed more than 1 million views in just a matter of days, but a spokeswoman for the park said it wasn’t the reason the elk was put down.

It "was the first incident that we know of that the elk engaged in physical contact," Dana Soehn said in a statement. It "was a trigger; the physical contact escalated our decision."

The footage was shot on Oct. 20 and shows a male elk head-butting Asheville, N.C., photographer James York. York was sitting on the side of the road shooting still photographs when the animal approached him. Neither he nor the elk were injured.

York said he was "truly saddened" by the park’s decision to euthanize the animal, but park officials said they’d exercised all possible options before killing the animal.

According to a park statement, since September, “park biologists aggressively hazed the elk 28 times to discourage it from approaching the road and visitors.”

Hazing techniques typically include firing loud firecrackers, chasing the animal, and shooting them in the rump with beanbags or paintballs, which frighten — but don’t harm — animals.

Park officials say the elk had likely been fed by visitors and lost its instinctive fear of people.

"This fall, there have been several elk that have become food-conditioned," Soehn said. "We have reports of visitors who have been feeding them, and the elk have been getting closer and closer. That one potato chip does make a big difference."

The feeding of wildlife is a constant problem in national parks that puts both humans and animals at risk.

When animals associate people with food, it often leads to behavioral changes that can cause property damage or human injury. It can also cause negative health effects for wildlife or lead to overpopulation from unnatural food sources.

Developing a dependence on unreliable food sources also makes animals more susceptible to predators and vehicle collisions.

To keep yourself and wildlife safe, the National Park Service advises park visitors to do the following:

  • Don’t share your food with wildlife.
  • Never leave food unattended, even for a short while.
  • Properly store food in a food locker or vehicle.
  • Properly dispose of trash in a bear-proof trash can or recycle container. Never overfill garbage cans.
  • Leave the area cleaner than you found it. Pick up food scraps, crumbs and wrappers and wipe down tabletops after eating.
  • Report wildlife problems to a ranger.