How Not to Behave in a National Park

elk and pedestrians

I am sure that by now that you have seen the video. If not, take a minute to watch it. 60 seconds are more than enough, but feel free to watch it all. I hope you are appalled by the behavior of the human. The elk is just an elk who has been badly treated by humans and, as a result, is now dead.

Natalie and I have spent a lot of time in both Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. I know the stretch of road in this video like I know the back of my hand. Never have we had a problem with wildlife of any kind. We see wildlife all the time. Lots of wildlife. We love seeing it, but we treat it all as if it is potentially very dangerous. Even the turkeys. You should see Natalie freak out at the sight of a turkey.

A National Park, National Forest, or a National Wildlife Refuge is not a petting zoo. I am going to repeat that.  The animals you see in the wild are not pets, they are not there for your amusement, it is not a petting zoo, it is not a zoo at all. There is nothing to save you from your own stupidity.

We have seen some horrific human behaviors in National Parks, but usually, the wildlife is pretty chill. We have seen things you wouldn’t believe*. What is surprising to me is that this is the first time there has been a problem at Cataloochee with an Elk. Let’s go over some “Rules of Engagement”

  • Stay in your car. Especially during the rut.
  • Don’t feed the animals
  • Having a camera or video camera doesn’t give you a free pass
  • Don’t be stupid

The only thing I have to say in favor of this ass is that he is still on the road, which is where animals expect the humans to be. We have amazing photographs taken from a car or truck. We were safe. We did not cause the animals to change behavior. Causing them to change behavior is a crime. I don’t mean a crime against nature, I mean against the law. With appropriate fines and jail terms. There is no reason for him to be outside the vehicle. Get someone to drive you around in the back of a truck if you really feel the need to be stupid about it.

Did we mention that getting out of the car during the rut is a bad idea?

A Big Horn Sheep head butting you is not a laughing matter. I will never forget a woman in heels tottering after a bighorn sheep wielding a phone trying to get a snapshot. If your camera can’t get the shot, that is a problem with your camera, or with your brain. Chasing down a bighorn isn’t going to solve to problem. The bighorn crushing your ribs and sternum will solve the problem. Permanently.

Ever see photos of a Land Rover in Africa with Lions sprawled on the hood and roof? Bet no one is stupid enough to get out of the vehicle there. Herbivore does not equal safe either. The number one killer in Africa is a Hippopotamus. They don’t eat meat. Cape Buffalo is not far behind. Also not a meat-eater. Don’t be stupid. Stay in your vehicle if animals are present.

If you are hiking stay on the marked trail. If you encounter wildlife while hiking, wait till they move off. Move back in the direction you came from if they move closer. It is their natural habitat, not yours. They are not on the clock and they don’t care about how much time you have available. Turn around and go home if you don’t like it. No one cares that you are an Olympic Trail Runner, I am sure the grizzly was really impressed while he chomped on your liver. Find somewhere else to train.

When you are traveling through the park, slow down. I mean that 30 mph is too fast. You shouldn’t need to touch the accelerator on the flat. If you are going faster than 25-30 you are missing the very things that you are there to enjoy. No need to block traffic, when you get a pullout, then pull over and sit for a minute. Folks in a hurry can get by and you will see things while parked there too.

Our rule is if we are not seeing wildlife, then we need to stop for a few minutes. If someone behind you needs to reach the far side of the park before dark that is his problem. He can get around when you have an opportunity to pull over. You will never see anything, or have a chance to enjoy the physical environment if you don’t slow down to a crawl. More people in your vehicle means more animals will be spotted, more eyeballs are scanning the roadside. Just don’t let the lead-foot in your party drive.

When you encounter wildlife while driving, get as far out of traffic as you can without leaving the road completely. If you can’t stop without blocking traffic then keep moving. Drive slowly and carefully without blocking any animals trying to cross the road.

If you must get out of the car, don’t leave the road. If there isn’t steel between you and the wildlife, then you are too close. Once you enter the park you are in their territory, and anything that happens is your fault. If it is mating season for the animal in question, or there are young present don’t leave the car at all. You don’t want to be between a bear cub on one side of the road and a mama on the other. If you like your car, don’t cut them off with your car either. Same for any other animal larger than a mole.

Speaking of baby animals larger than a nestling bird, if you see one, the mama is near. You may not see her, but she is there. Back off. Stay safe, or you will end up a statistic. The mountain lion cubs are sure cute. You won’t feel cute when mama decides you are a threat or a snack.

male elk
Who’s your daddy?

To summarize:

  • Don’t feed or attempt to touch the animals
  • Don’t approach the animals. If they change behavior you have violated the law.
  • Don’t even look at them cross-eyed
  • If you are on foot, stop and wait for them to move on, be prepared to retreat if they approach you
  • If you are in your car, then stay in the car
  • More eyeballs in the car mean you will spot more animals
  • Slow down, way down, you will see more
  • Don’t let the lead-foot drive
  • Don’t block the road,  pull over to let other traffic pass whenever possible
  • If there is a baby, stay away to stay alive
  • Keep an eye out in all directions
  • Don’t be an ass
  • Having a camera or a video camera doesn’t give you a free pass
  • If you are in that big a hurry to get to though the park, then go hike somewhere else, like downtown

If you can’t manage these simple rules, then perhaps a petting zoo with adult supervision is a better place for you. Even if your stupidity doesn’t cost you your life or health, it will cost the animal involved theirs.

*Gratuitous Blade Runner reference.

2 Comments on “How Not to Behave in a National Park

  1. The elk was not killed because of that man. It was killed because it was not afraid of humans, due to other humans feeding it, which is why it approached the man in the first place. He had nothing to do with it and was simply taking a picture. As someone who photographs wildlife, I am completely aware that I put myself in potential risk for harm every time I do; that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I respect nature. People and animals have been coexisting long before cars were invented, sweetheart.
    If you want to get angry, get angry at the officials who put that animal down without utilizing other options, such as a wildlife reserve.

    • Hi Yo and welcome to Backyard Ecosystem.

      I am aware that the elk was already a problem. The elk was a problem because he was fed by badly behaved humans. Their bad behavior caused him to lose his natural fear of humans. It is a National Park not a petting zoo. He (the photographer in the video) put himself in a bad place and failed to keep an eye out. Now the elk is dead. The photographer may not be the first cause, but he was the final straw. “Having a camera or video camera does not give you a free pass.”

      Long before cars, hunting injuries were a major cause of death. I also talk a fair amount in the post about what to do when hiking. Advice which pretty much amounts to being cautious, staying on the marked trail, and being prepared to get the hell out of there if necessary.

      I hike, I am a bowhunter, and I am a photographer. I somehow manage to do all of these things without being stupid or selfish. I am extra aware and cautious when there are young animals (mostly spring) and it is mating season (mostly fall) for large mammals.

      I am angry. Angry at those whose sense of entitlement and thoughtless behaviors result in majestic animals who live in a protected environment having to be put down unnecessarily. Angry at those who make parks, forests, gamelands, and refuges less enjoyable for all of us with their bad behavior.


      P.S. The Elk in the first photo is crossing the road at the exact spot the photographer was sitting in the video. We are sitting near the patch of trees visible just to the left of the road in the video. The photo was taken in early October and the rut was just getting rolling at that time.

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