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There are right and wrong ways to respond to the presence of wildlife, and the wrong choices — even with the best intentions — can have devastating consequences.

As both local and out-of-town sunseekers flock to the shores of Virginia Beach during the summer, our area sees an increase in direct encounters between humans and aquatic species such as sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees. Simply sighting one of these wild animals is a thrilling feeling, particularly for those who aren’t residents of the Hampton Roads area and don’t enjoy frequent exposure to our waterways and what lives in them. But there are right and wrong ways to respond to the presence of wildlife, and the wrong choices people can make — even with the best intentions — can have devastating consequences for wildlife and people.

So, what are the interactions you should avoid? Do not feed or offer fresh water to animals and avoid touching them, even to assist them with something like entanglement in a fishing line. It is actually illegal to touch or feed certain species of animals due to federal protections which can incur thousands of dollars in civil or criminal penalties. Wondering why there are such harsh consequences for these interactions? It’s because animals that come into contact with humans in these ways can suffer long-term physical trauma and behavioral changes.

Feeding Them Can Hurt Them: When a beachgoer offers food to a seal or a manatee, they’re placing that animal’s health at risk if the food is not appropriate for the animal’s dietary needs or is of poor quality. They also teach the animal that humans are a source of food, which causes animals to linger around humans where they’re more at risk of being hit by boats, getting tangled in fishing lines, etc . Manatees, which are becoming a more frequent sight in our area during the summers, may linger too long in our area for food or fresh water rather than returning south before the cold weather proves lethal for them.

Feeding Them Can Hurt YOU: There are plenty of risks these animals can pose to humans. While a seagull going after your bag of French fries may be a bother, a seal that harasses humans and pets for food is a threat, and they can develop aggressive behaviors when they’ve been emboldened by past interactions with people. Even if you are lucky enough not to be injured by such a seal, the seal may be deemed a nuisance seal and may need to be euthanized to reduce future danger to people.

View Wildlife Safely: All marine mammals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is enforced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – they offer a handy guide for how to safely view marine mammals on their website. Sea turtles are protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which offers their own wildlife viewing guide on their website as well. Some marine mammals and sea turtles are considered endangered and are also protected under the Endangered Species Act.

What If An Animal’s In Trouble?: Sometimes animals need help, like when they’ve gotten caught in a net, sustained an injury, or lost their way. Although it may be tempting to try to assist the animal yourself, the right choice is to call trained animal responders (such as our Stranding Response team) rather than intervene on your own. Without adequate experience or expertise, you may end up causing more problems for the animal. Animals that swim off with entanglements on their bodies or embedded hooks in their throats may not survive.

Dolphin Washed Up on the Beach?: In most cases, the dolphin will have injuries or a need for medical attention, and pushing the animal back into the water can cause more harm. A weak animal cannot swim adequately, so returning it to the water puts it at risk of drowning or being eaten by predators. It’s also best to give rescuers an opportunity to fully examine the animal for medical concerns and diseases before the animal is returned to the water. Furthermore, stranded wildlife can harm humans as well – it’s best to keep a distance to be safe!

What About Seals?: Seals are frequent visitors to our area in winter and will haul out onto beaches, rocks and other structures to rest. While most of these are healthy and simply resting, seals that appear to be injured or that remain in the same location for more than 8 hours may be in need of help. Hauled out seals should be reported to the Stranding Response hotline at (757) 385-7575. It is essential to keep yourself and your pets 50 yards away from these animals at all times.

Be the Eyes and Ears for Stranding Response: Our Stranding Response Team has the knowledge and experience needed to aid sea turtles and marine mammals in need. In addition to daily exposure to these animals, our team is trained on animal anatomy and physiology, veterinary medicine, husbandry care, and pathology. They also have other specialized trainings such as disentanglement training, which is overseen by the federal government. Strandings can be reported to our hotline (757) 385-7575 which is monitored 365 days per year. Your reports and the care you take when encountering wildlife can help us in our mission to conserve vulnerable species!