8 hilarious but true wildlife tips from the National Park Service

The park service’s social media is usually absurd but it’s not wrong

(Illustration by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post; iStock)
5 min

The National Park Service is known for majestic landscapes, natural treasures and a witty, borderline absurdist social media presence.

Whether offering droll advice with a digital straight face (“To avoid crowds, visit areas that are less crowded”), tapping into pop culture (a photo of a reclining marmot with the caption “I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100%…a potato”) or simply stating the obvious (“We have parks”), the government agency’s posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook frequently go viral.

Some of the biggest hits touch on the creatures that can be found in the park system’s territory — and why it’s a terrible idea to touch, bother or get too close to them. Typically, a tip/dad joke is followed by key safety information.

8 ways to be the absolute worst national park visitor

Matt Turner, who once served as a guide and interpreter at Park Service sites, runs social media for the National Park Service, working with a team of public affairs and digital media specialists. In a 2020 interview with the Trust for Public Land, he said he took the social media reins in 2018 and has seen that posts using humor or pop culture references “really resonate.”

“Over the last few years, the National Park Service Instagram has gained a reputation for creating unique, humorous posts that aim to educate the public and inspire visitors to get outdoors and explore their national parks,” Park Service spokeswoman Cynthia Hernandez said in an email. “Also, reminders to avoid petting the fluffy cows. Safety first.”

These are some of the best — okay, most hilarious but true — recent wildlife tips from the Park Service.

Fluffy cow restraint

When the national parks people talk about “fluffy cows,” they really mean bison — and they’re not kidding about avoiding the bovines. Bison have injured more people at Yellowstone than any other animal, according to the park, including at least three during a month-long stretch last year.

“In national parks, you don’t pet bison,” a follow-up tweet says. “Bison pet you. (If you get too close.)⁣”

Visitors should stay at least 25 yards away from bison.

Squirrel attacks

The “bitey end” tidbit introduces a series of reminders about safely observing wildlife. Key among them: Never feed wild animals in a national park; store food, stash trash and leave no trace of a visit and maintain a safe distance from wildlife.

“Animals that eat our snacks can get full off the wrong foods and stop eating the nutrients they need to survive,” the Park Service says on its website. “They can stop hunting, foraging, or scavenging as they would naturally. They literally want to get chips or die trying.”

Please stop licking psychedelic toads, National Park Service warns

Bear escapes

This advice was part safety tip, part reflection on friendship: “Seeing a bear in the wild is a special treat for any visitor to a national park,” a subsequent tweet says. “While it is an exciting moment, it is important to remember that bears in national parks are wild and can be dangerous.”

The tip had more than 184,000 likes on Twitter and more than 344,000 on Instagram.

A link to an official site includes a long list of general advice for bear encounters, including talking calmly and waving arms; staying calm; picking up small children right away; traveling in groups; maneuvering to appear as large as possible; keeping food out of the bear’s grasp; moving away slowly and sideways; and not running or climbing a tree.

Ermine etiquette

It may look adorable, but the Park Service warns that the critter also known as a stoat or short-tailed weasel “has a reputation as being fierce and territorial.”

Toad licking

Social media posts in November cautioned the park-visiting public to keep their tongues off the large Sonoran Desert toad, which secrete a “potent toxin.”

While the substance is a psychedelic, a scientific research group says the notion that licking the toads can result in a high is a “popular myth.”

How to explore the 3 newest national monuments

Turkey hunting

In a post full of “Princess Bride” references, the Park Service includes this warning: “Your chances of being hunted by a turkey are low, but never zero.”

The wild turkey, it turns out, can reach 18 miles per hour on foot and “may respond aggressively to shiny objects, their own reflections, or those they seek revenge from.”

Rule of thumb

This post led to several information back-and-forth comments, including with one person who wondered how the animal would know they weren’t hitchhiking.

“They usually don’t pick up strangers unless you get too close,” the Park Service said.

While the post uses 25 feet as a standard, visitors should check the guidelines for individual parks; many require a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife, and 100 yards from predators, according to an official guide to viewing animals.

Winter wisdom

Sometimes the tip comes with a long list of useful advice. Sometimes it’s just a tongue-in-cheek poop joke.

Honorable mention

The National Park Service doesn’t have a monopoly on funny tweets; the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation gives the national account a run for its money.

Tara Teel, a professor at Colorado State University who studies the social aspects of wildlife-human relations, said people are increasingly finding themselves in dangerous situations with wildlife.

“People are wanting to have these more intimate and up-close experiences with wildlife, but at the same time they are not aware of the dangers associated with that,” she said.

A team from the university worked on a communications campaign with the National Park Service in 2017 trying to emphasize the importance of keeping a distance from wildlife; humor ended up being a key part of the project.

“Information alone isn’t enough to get people to change their behaviors,” she said. “We were focused on making the messages relatable ... I think the humor is a great way initially to rope people in.”