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Your pumpkin is not going to help the deer

Fall is a magical time to get outside and see local wildlife. But don't get fooled by social media memes urging you to dump your jack o'lantern in the forest.

Fall is here, and now the leaves are thinning it’s a magical time where we can see more wildlife in the woods than during the height of summer. Animals and birds are still around stocking up for winter, and it’s easier to catch a glimpse through the trees of a bright red cardinal or the white puff of tail of a deer as it bounds away.

If you’re like me, you probably wonder, “How do these animals make it through the cold months where nothing is growing? What the heck do they eat?” And if you’re a particularly helpful sort, you may ask yourself, “Is there anything I can do to make their fall and winter a little easier and keep them better fed?”

For weeks now, we’ve all been seeing the meme on social media suggesting that we leave our pumpkins in the forest for deer to eat. “It’s food for the animals!” the meme explains. “This helps the deer!”

It turns out it’s not anywhere near as simple as that and your good intentions may be putting animals in harms way.

Leaving pumpkins in the woods is “actually not a great idea," explains Lesley McDonell, a terrestrial ecologist with the Hamilton Conservation Authority. “And there are several reasons for that.”

The first problem is that it brings animals together. “You and I might like a good party,” says McDonell. “But when you bring animals together that way, it can spread disease.”

Fall is an amazing time to see wildlife in the woods. Just don't feed them. Photos: Chris White

Secondly: “Often people when they do put their pumpkins in the woods, they don’t walk very far.” This leads to lines of pumpkins, and snacking deer, near the roadways. “You’re attracting animals to roads and suburban areas where they can be hit by cars, or chased by dogs, which can lead to stress and possible death for the animal.”

Similarly, if you have a pumpkin that has paint or if a candle was in it, that can make the animals sick. “Just like us, they shouldn’t be eating candles or paint.”

Finally, and this was news to me: There is a by-law in Hamilton that prevents you from feeding any wild animal except for birds in your own backyard.

All great reasons to avoid smashing up your pumpkin and putting it in the woods. 

So what to do with it then? Well, if it’s free of wax or paint you can certainly cut it up put it in a yard waste bag or container on the curb (just not in your green bin, please). That way it will be composted and turned into valuable nutrients that feed the soil and then other plants. And if a deer happens to browse in that garden, then you’re kind of feeding the deer in a roundabout way, right?

Also, sometimes farms put a call out in the news or on social media for pumpkins to feed pigs or other animals. And you’re all following lots of local farms on social media, right? How else do you get your fun farm news?

Of course another great way to support wildlife is to purchase an HCA membership. It gives you access to all of their conservation areas and helps support conservation efforts that provide animals like deer with valuable habitat.

Deer are better off without your Halloween pumpkins.

And with that new membership burning a hole in your pocket, you’re going to want to get out and see some wildlife. Best times for seeing deer are early morning and early evening. Chances are they’ll see you before you see them and they’ll run away. This is often the first time you realize they’re there. But if you move slowly and don’t look threatening, sometimes they’ll just stand there and mind their own business until you pass. 

Of course, the quieter you are when walking the more you’ll see, and always make very sure to have your dog on a strong leash that can withstand a sudden tug when your pooch gets a scent of wildlife.

But as for feeding those deer? They’re fine. Instead put your pumpkins on the curb, donate them to a pig, or chop your pumpkin up, remove the paint and wax and make some delicious biscuits for that dog in your life. While the deer won’t ever thank you, the dog certainly will.

Jason Allen is the host of The Environmental Urbanist, Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. on 93.3 CFMU, and has been encouraging Hamiltonians to explore the outdoors for almost two decades.

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