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Feeding wildlife at USF raises question of risk

ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Trash duty begins at 7:30 a.m. for Edwin Vasquez and other members of the USF maintenance staff. Vasquez vividly recalls a dark morning six months ago when an opossum sprang out of the shadows of the dumpster and lunged at him. He was spooked. 

Encounters such as Vasquez’s are common on the USF campus. The discarded Starbucks cups, Subway sandwiches and other garbage left behind by the teeming campus of 42,000 students are beacons for the wildlife that roam the 1,562-acre campus. People frequently feed the animals during the day, and the animals continue their quest for food throughout the night.  

These animals create a risk factor on campus. In 2012, there were 109 wildlife rabies cases reported in Florida, according to Public Veterinary Medicine.

“It is dangerous to go to the trash collection site because sometimes the squirrels will jump out at you. It’s very possible that these animals are rabid,” Vasquez said. “One time I had to back up my golf cart because a group of possums stunned me.”

Vasquez said there are alligators, eagles, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, cats, ducks and various other wild animals on campus.

Jared Gagliardi, a junior majoring in management, said the wildlife is vermin and can fend for themselves. 

“You have to worry about the possibility of these animals having rabies,” Gagliardi said. “Humans should not come in close contact with a rabid animal.”

Vernon Yates, president and founder of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, said the animals become reliant on the food and will no longer hunt and gather food for themselves. 

“I am even against bird feeders,” Yates said. “You are no longer feeding your one bird of choice. You have created an environment for other birds to come and eat.”

Feeding the wildlife on campus can result in a domino effect. Yates described a scenario in which bird feed was scattered on the ground and squirrels and rats became reliant on it. Consequently, owls, snakes and raccoons congregated in the same vicinity.

“Now all of this wildlife is assembling in your backyard and you have increased the chance for exposure to rabies not only for yourself, but for the other animals,” Yates said. “It is a vicious cycle.”

Other students on campus find feeding the wildlife to be an act of kindness. 

“Feeding the animals on campus helps keep the animals friendly rather than vicious to the campus population,” said Caleigh Cogar, a junior majoring in psychology.

Yet, others think the animals’ temperament puts people at risk.

“The people on campus feeding the wildlife need to stop. It’s not only making these animals aggressive, but it’s putting my maintenance team at risk,” Vasquez said.