Wildlife Viewing Guidelines

Profile photo of a coyote in a grassland landscape.

NPS / Kirke Wrench

The opportunity to view wild animals in their natural habitat can be a transformative event. Hearing a coyote howl or seeing a black-tailed deer graze are uniqe experiences not often available on city streets, and Golden Gate is home to an incredible diversity of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

However, sometimes human-wildlife interaction can cause serious problems. Sometimes our emotional response to animals prevents us from embracing a wildlife conservation ethic grounded in sound science and management. In recent years, resource management staff has noted an increase in negative interactions between wildlife and park visitors. Some of these heartbreaking cases have ended in euthanizing animals that have acted aggressively.


Q: What should I do if an wild animal is approaching me?

  • If it is a bear, follow these species specific guidelines.
  • If you can, make loud noise (clap or yell) and make yourself appear large.
  • Slowly back away. Walk and do not run. Do not turn your back.
  • Keep small children close to you.
  • Leash pets and possibly consider picking up small dogs.
  • Once you are in a safe place, call Park Dispatch at 415-561-5505.
Red circle with bar with black hand on left and coyote on right .
Do not feed coyotes or other animals.


How to enjoy wildlife viewing experiences safely:

  • Do not feed wildlife. They do not need your food handouts to survive; in fact, they stay much healthier when you do not feed them.

  • Maintain a safe distance. If an animal is reacting to you by either approaching, moving away, or showing signs of distress or agitation, you are too close.

  • Whether it’s just you or 10 people, keep the long distance. As crowds gather, wildlife can quickly feel threatened and, in their panic, harm people

  • Calling, clicking, whistling or making noises of any kind to attract wildlife is illegal.The real joy is in seeing these animals in the wild, not in interacting with them.
  • Do enjoy the beauty and special experience of watching wildlife in their natural habitat!

Be a role model to others in your family or group and even other visitors by embodying our mission to protect and preserve wildlife. How you can help:

  • Maintain a safe distance. If people around you stop maintaining a safe distance, don’t be afraid to speak up and remind your fellow visitors of the regulations.

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Do not leave food or trash out where wildlife will find it.

  • You can contribute positively to the conservation of wildlife by uploading your wildlife photos and observations to community science platform iNaturalist!

  • Please report wildlife feeding, close or dangerous wildlife encounters, aggressive behavior and attacks immediately to U.S. Park Police Dispatch at 415-561-5505.

  • If you observe injured wildlife in the park, please call Park Dispatch at 415-561-5505.

  • If you observe an injured, stranded, or dead marine mammal in the park, please contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-767-6114.
Raccoon pauses on a table beside some flowers.
Raccoons are one of several animal species that tend to pick up scavenging behaviors when fed by humans.

NPS / Cristina Flores

Q: Why can’t I feed wildlife?

"A Fed Animal is a Dead Animal."

Feeding wildlife is illegal in National Parks. Wild animals stay healthier when you do not feed them. Animals that are fed lose not only their natural fear of humans, but also their ability to forage on their own. And, once they learn to beg, they can become aggressive in seeking food from humans, more likely to get injured by vehicles, and become seriously ill.

  • Wild animals can misinterpret your actions! They don’t know where the food stops and your fingers begin. Unfortunately, the animal could lose its life when people complain of being bitten or attacked. Park resource managers don’t have a lot of options in dealing with aggressive, food conditioned wild animals.

  • Fed animals tend to congregate near roadways and are at a high risk for being killed by vehicles.

  • Leaving garbage exposed at picnic areas or beaches can also attract higher numbers of predatory mammals and birds, which can impact prey species.

Problem feeding occurs across the park from coyotes and deer in the Headlands to chipmunks and ravens in Muir Woods to raccoons and feral cats in the Presidio. You can help us curtail this unwanted behavior from animals by putting your food away and moving away from the animal. More info about why not to feed wildlife.

Photo of harbor seals lounging on rocks
Harbor seals haul-out undisturbed at Point Bonita.

NPS / Maritte O'Gallagher

Q: How close is too close?

All wildlife in National Parks are protected by federal law. Most people know that hunting and trapping are not allowed in National Parks, but many people do not realize that approaching wildlife is also prohibited. When you come too close, you cause animals stress and may interfere with behaviors that are necessary for their survival.

If an animal is reacting to you, you are too close! For small mammals, reptiles, and birds, keeping a distance of about 50 ft / 15m (which is about the length of a bus) is reccommended. For larger animals, like deer, elk, coyotes, and bobcats, expanding that distance to more like 100 ft / 30m (equivalent to two bus lengths) is considered safe.

Some examples of wildlife reacting to humans at Golden Gate include:

  • Endangered Western snowy plovers at Ocean Beach need the energy reserves they build up while overwintering in the park for mating. When you approach too closely, snowy plovers will run away before flying off. This causes them to expend energy and move from their preferred foraging areas, which ultimately can affect their survival and reproductive success.

  • Brandt's cormorants can flush off of their nests when boaters approach too closely or park visitors enter closed areas at Alcatraz Island. When the attending parent leaves the nest, predatory western gulls often come in and eat eggs or nestlings. Because Brandt’s cormorants and most of the waterbirds on Alcatraz are nest in colonies and often share communal behaviors for the benefit of the entire group, whole groups of birds tend to flush from nests when a single bird reacts to a disturbance.

  • Harbor seals at Point Bonita have an adaptive behavior of ‘hauling out,’ where they temporarily leave the water and congregate on rocks. This is an important way that seals maintain healthy body teperatures. When people or boaters approach too closely, the seals will flush into the water.

Disrupting natural behavioral patterns can have negative consequences for animals. We are in their territory and are perceived as threatening. Don’t follow animals or behave in any way that may be perceived as “harassment,” and don’t allow your pets to, either.

Q: But, what if I want the perfect photo?

The popularity of selfies and capturing any moment through photographs or video is posing a new threat to wildlife and humans. Trigger-happy tourists have started to provoke animals, and in some instances, alter their behaviors as a result. So, use your zoom or a telephoto lens, or take a moment to quietly watch from a distance. It may even be more rewarding than getting the perfect shot.

Deer with antlers gazes at the camera.
Visitors don't always treat deer as wild animals.

NPS / Lenny Rush

Q: What are the serious risks involved in wildlife encounters?

Seemingly tame animals are still wild, and behave unpredictably. Animals may use their teeth, claws, hooves, or antlers to defend themselves. Visitors are attacked by mule deer or bitten by ground squirrels in western parks every year. Experience wildlife from a safe distance. You are too close to an animal if your presence causes them to move or react! Loud noises, sudden movement or an unannounced approach will cause them to interrupt their normal behavior. Always give animals an avenue for retreat. There are other more serious hazards associated with wildlife. Rodents carry hantavirus, bats carry rabies, and chipmunks have been known to carry the plague. In some situations these diseases may be transmitted through simple contact. DON’T ever handle wildlife unless you are a trained resource management professional. By keeping wildlife wild, you are protecting their safety - and yours.

Risks to you include:

  • Bites, scratches, and/or bruises

  • Infectious diseases such as rabies, Bubonic plague, or Hantavirus

  • Internet/media fame for a very undesirable reason (Have you seen the number of YouTube videos and news reports of people getting attacked by wild animals because they got too close?)

  • Damage to your vehicle or belongings

  • Animal waste in or on your belongings (or you) when you do not secure and store your food properly

  • Pesky and persistent animals that could become aggressive

  • In rare cases, severe injuries or even death

Risks to wildlife include:

  • Diseases

  • Poor health

  • Increased likelihood of being killed by vehicle traffic because they are drawn to visitor areas

  • Euthanasia when animals become aggressive or harmful to visitors

  • Injuries

  • Young wildlife may be abandoned

Last updated: March 21, 2024

Discover the Wildlife of Golden Gate

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