They might be cute, but please don't feed the elk.
That's the message from the Pennsylvania Game Commission after a bull elk was found dead Jan. 9 in Byrnedale, Elk County, due to winter wildlife feeding.
A necropsy determined the animal suffered from rumen acidosis, also known as grain overload or corn toxicity. The disease occurs when animals suddenly ingest foods foreign to their natural diets.
Such supplemental feeding is not only harmful, it's illegal in Pennsylvania.
The problem is most frequent in the winter, said David Carlini, information and education supervisor for the Game Commission's northcentral region.
"Some people are misguided," Mr. Carlini said. "They think because winter is cold they are helping the animals by feeding them."
Mr. Carlini said most people are well-intentioned and often put out food because they want to see the animals.
Tony Ross, wildlife management supervisor for the Game Commission, said animals' diets shift with the seasons, as do bacteria needed for digestion. When animals eat food abnormal to the season, their bodies don't have the necessary bacteria to digest it safely.
During the winter, elk rely on stored fat and foods high in fiber to sustain themselves. When they eat foods high in carbohydrates, such as corn or wheat, too much lactic acid builds up in their stomachs. Animals suffering from rumen acidosis often die within 24 to 72 hours after consumption.
This risk is not exclusive to the elk population. Wild deer, moose and domestic animals such as cattle also are at risk.
Intentional wildlife feeding can result in hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs. An investigation of the recent elk death is ongoing.
In addition to elk, it is illegal to feed bears in Pennsylvania.
Even for species that are legal to feed, Mr. Ross warned against the practice.
"People have been doing it forever," he said. "But they have to let the animals survive on their own."
Lauren Lindstrom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1964.