National Park Service rangers scoured the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in recent weeks, bolt cutters in hand, and took aim at their targets.
Hanging from fences were love locks, etched with the names or initials of partners who, perhaps, had seen the vast, everlasting expanse of mudstone beyond the precipice and believed that their love, too, would be as endless. Except the padlocks these visitors had placed were not emblems of passion but simply man-made litter, officials said.
“Love is strong,” the Grand Canyon National Park Service said on Facebook this week. “But it is not as strong as our bolt cutters.”
By Friday, rangers had removed dozens of love locks from fences at the Grand Canyon, one of the country’s most beloved national parks and, since around 2006, a magnet for romantic gestures involving the locks.
Jeff Stebbins, a spokesman for Grand Canyon National Park, said rangers remove locks that accumulate on the fences every two years. The locks, he said, are “effectively vandalizing and littering and ultimately damaging public lands for both people and wildlife.”
The dangers they pose to wildlife are particularly troubling because the love lock custom typically involves throwing away their corresponding keys into the canyon, he said.
That could cause trouble for California condors, critically endangered birds that can have wingspans of nearly 10 feet. The Park Service said that, “like a small child,” condors like to investigate strange things with their mouths, including shiny keys.
Wildlife officials worry that condors will ingest the keys — or other metallic items like coins, which people toss into the canyon — and possibly die.
Mr. Stebbins said he was not aware of a case in which a condor ate a key and died but said “it’s always a possibility.”
Grand Canyon National Park shared a photo of a condor with a coin lodged in its digestive tract. It later had to be operated on.
Mr. Stebbins said the park’s post also sought to raise broader awareness over the harm of littering in general at the Grand Canyon.
The post renewed attention over the love lock tradition, its purpose and whether there is a future for such commemorations.
It was once believed that the origins of love locks dated back at least 100 years to a Serbian World War I tale involving the love of a young schoolteacher in the town of Vrnjacka Banja for a soldier who was about to go to the front.
But there is not much research backing that account, said Ceri Houlbrook, a professor of folklore at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom who has researched and written a book on the history of love locks.
Instead, Professor Houlbrook said, the first evidence she has found of the custom was in Pécs, Hungary, in the 1980s, but it was associated at the time with a punk movement, not romance. Around the same time in Italy, members of the military placed padlocks on a bridge as a form of celebration.
The Italian novelist Federico Moccia appears to have been the catalyst for turning the custom into a romantic gesture after his popular book, “I Want You,” which was made into a 2012 movie, featured a scene of two love interests attaching a padlock on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence, Professor Houlbrook said.
Fans of the book traveled to the bridge to imitate the practice, and the custom caught on from there, she said.
“Whenever you get something a bit odd in a public space, a tourist space, tourists start to just imitate doing it,” Professor Houlbrook. “So they started doing it and documenting it on social media, and it just spread globally from there.”
In some parts of the world, like Paris, the custom has become so mainstream, there are people on a bridge selling padlocks for love-struck tourists strolling by.
Officials in certain cities, however, view the padlocks not as symbols of connection but as weighty barnacles encroaching on beloved landmarks.
In New York City, workers remove love locks from the Brooklyn Bridge. In Melbourne, officials made a similar effort on a bridge bearing the weight of around 20,000 love locks that was potentially beginning to wear because of them. And in Leeds, U.K., officials ordered that love locks be removed from several bridges because of structural concerns.
Still, the custom has persisted probably because of how easy it is, Professor Houlbrook said: Padlocks are cheap, easy to write on and easy to find a bridge or fence to lock onto. They’re also simple to photograph and share on social media.
“There’s something satisfying about kind of adding your own to a big assemblage of something — to see it grow with your contribution, and hundreds of others’ contribution,” Professor Houlbrook said. “You feel like you’re leaving your mark.”