Conservation Sustainability

The Wild Truth About Food Litter and Wildlife

The Wild Truth About Food Litter and Wildlife

Eastern Screech-Owl injured by a vehicle collision. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Wild

By Winslow Umberger

When does a discarded apple core become dangerous? The answer is when it is tossed onto the roadside. Our mountains draw more motoring admirers each year, particularly in the fall when leaves are ablaze with color. Well-meaning motorists toss food items along roadways believing they biodegrade or help feed animals. What’s the harm in that?

“Tossed food is a problem,” says Savannah Trantham, cofounder, with Kimberly Brewster, of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. “Last year, an estimated 500 wild animals were taken into rehabilitation care in Western North Carolina due to vehicular collisions. Food waste attracts a variety of creatures, such as opossums, mice, raccoons and birds, bringing them dangerously close to our roads and highways.” She points out that tossing food 50 feet or more from the road guarantees no protection.

Consider this scenario: On one side of the road, a mouse is nibbling on that apple core. On the other, is an owl that can easily spot his prey from one hundred yards away. Laser-focused on his nighttime meal, the owl silently swoops across the roadway. Bam! Motorist and owl collide. The vast majority of owl injuries and fatalities are caused by such collisions.

Daytime makes little difference. Raptors angling in for the kill dive down without noticing traffic. If the hawk, falcon or eagle survives the impact, wildlife rehabilitators must deal with the resulting head injuries, broken bones and incapacitating wounds. Mammals and reptiles are frequent casualties of this practice as well.

The toll of food littering on animals is considerable and the resulting expense to save the injured is appreciable. The injured may need up to a year or more to recover. This aid is provided by volunteer home-based wildlife rehabilitators or through wildlife rehabilitation centers, such as the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Banner Elk, Wild for Life in Asheville or the Carolina Raptor Center near Charlotte.

The Wild Truth About Food Litter and Wildlife

Eastern box
turtle hit by a car

“If you find an injured or orphaned wild animal roadside,” says Trantham, “your safety is foremost. Be aware of traffic and, if it is safe to do so, cover it with a towel or jacket to mitigate its stress. Handling wildlife can harm the animal or cause injury to you. You will need the guidance of a trained wildlife rehabilitator. Visit our website to learn what to do with, and where to take, the animal.

“Currently, there is no wildlife urgent care facility in WNC, apart from the one in Banner Elk,” says Brewster, “but we are working diligently to remedy the situation.” Their dream is to build one in Buncombe or a bordering county. The center will provide emergency care and coordinate rescue and transport efforts to save animals requiring help.

Help is available now by click or email through the Appalachian Wild website. “We want to be the community’s ‘Wildlife 911,’” says Trantham. “In addition to our email hotline (, the ‘Found an Animal’ link on our home page provides guidance on helping wildlife.”

Donor dollars are desperately needed to make this a reality. Appalachian Wildlife Refuge is a non-profit organization so donations are tax deductible. Please visit or email for more information on how you can help save and protect our priceless wildlife.

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