To help ease some of your outdoor paranoia’s, here are a few simple guidelines for the most common ‘dangerous’ wild animals. Maybe knowing more about the ones in your area will make it easier to get past any latent fears and take advantage of the outdoor areas near you.
COYOTES AND WOLVES
Range: Coyotes are found throughout North America, even in downtown Los Angeles! Wolves (the Grey Wolf) is found throughout Canada and in the northernmost states of the U.S.
Coyote attacks are extremely rare. I’ve had several strange encounters with coyotes lately; thankfully they have not seemed intent on hurting me. Wolf attacks are also extremely rare. I only found four cases where a wolf/wolves had killed a person in the last twenty years in the U.S., and two of them were from ‘pet’ wolves on chains (one was a runner in Alaska). There are a few more cases of attacks where everyone survived, including this story from Canada. Interestingly (and sadly) wolf kills are not uncommon in Russia.
- If a coyote approaches you, try to look big, make loud and sudden movements, and throw rocks.
- Don’t run. Like most canids they may chase a moving object.
- Make sure you stay between the coyote and your children.
- If a coyote is barking at you, back off slowly. If it’s spring she probably has pups and just wants to make sure you stay away.
- Wolves in the lower 48 are still rather uncommon, but should you and your kids run into a pack in Alaska, don’t run and don’t turn away. Make noise, make yourself large, but don’t be overly aggressive. Find a stick and some rocks to use against the animal–aim for the nose. Wolves don’t climb trees well, so get yourself up in one quickly if you can.
Range: Species of rattlesnakes and rattling relatives are found throughout North America. In addition, there are a few species of Coral Snakescattered throughout eastern and southern U.S.,the cottonmouth/water moccasin, which occur in the southeastern states of the U.S. up into the lower half of the Great Plains, and the copperhead, which occurs along the east coast, and throughout the southeast.
What to do before you see a snake:
- Hike in shoes, the higher the tops the better.
- If your worried you also might want to consider wearing pants.
- Avoid hiking in tall grass, swimming in swampy water, and putting your hands and feet onto cliff ledges you can’t see.
- Schedule hikes early in the day, before it gets hot. Many snakes like to come out in the heat of the day, and lay in the sun where you may walk.
- Learn how to identify poisonous snakes.
- Be aware of the sounds and movements around you. Rattlers will try to warn you if you are disturbing them too much, but if you don’t hear the sound, it does no good!
What to do if you see one:
- Give the snake a wide berth. While it is possible for a snake to ‘chase’ you, it is very rare for species found in the U.S. and Canada
- Respect the snake. It does not want to strike at you, but will if provoked.
What to do if you’re bit:
- Stay calm. Increasing your heart rate will only make the venom move through your body more quickly. Perhaps this statistic will help you stay calm: between 2500 and 4000 people get bit by venomous snakes every year in the U.S. and Canada. Less than ten of them die.
- Keep the bite below your heart.
- If you have to wait a bit to get to the doctor, wrap the area just below the bite (on the heart side) with a bandage–tightly, like a sprained foot. Wrap away from the wound, back over the wound, past it on the non-heart side, and then back to the middle. Keep the bitten area as still as possible.
- Wash the wound with soap and water. Don’t suck on it though.
In general, mountain lions do not see humans as prey–recognizing prey is a learned behavior for these cats, and most of them have never learned to associate the humanoid shape with tastiness. The exceptions are lions that are very habituated to humans, or are very hungry. Attacks are most common in the late spring and early summer… there’ve been around 100 attacks (fatal and non-) on humans in the last 100-plus years.
Range: Western United States.
Before you see a mountain lion:
- Avoid hiking at dawn or dusk.
- Don’t let children run ahead of you or lag too far behind on the trail… keep them in eyesight.
Once you see a mountain lion:
- Avoid rapid movements, running, loud, excited talk.
- Stay in groups; hold small children; keep older children close to and behind an adult.
- Do not turn your back.
- Look for sticks, rocks or other weapons and keep them at hand.
- Watch the cat at all times.
- Do not run. If you run, you have made yourself into prey.
- Appear larger. Raise arms, objects, or jackets above your head.
If it starts staring intensely or crouching and/or creeping toward you;
- Take all the above actions.
- Move slowly, position trees, boulders or other large objects between yourself and the lion.
- Do not lose sight of the lion.
- Make loud, menacing sounds, like yelling and growling. Show your teeth.
- Throw things if the lion is close enough to hit.
- Pepper spray may be effective if lion is downwind and close enough.
If it comes down to it. Fight back with everything you’ve got. Mountain lions will go for the head and neck with their mouths. Make this as difficult as possible for them. You may also want to keep a frying pan handy. Here are some more suggestions for avoiding negative encounters with mountain lions.
There are two species of bears that could be commonly encountered by people in most of North America–we are excluding the polar bear because seeing one might be worth it. Just kidding. Black bears rarely fatally attack humans–less than 30 people have been killed by black bears in the last 100 years or so. Most human-black bear encounters happen in national parks (like the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, or Yellowstone) where bears have become habituated to people and their tasty food. Most aggression comes from bears trying to get at human food, not from territoriality. Black bears will occasionally fake-charge at someone while snorting and grunting–they do not as frequently follow through. Grizzly (Brown) bears, similarly avoid people, though their temperament is supposedly less predictable. Because of their massive size, it is less likely that a human will survive an attack (as compared to a black bear).
Range: Black bears are found throughout most of North America, excluding heavily farmed or prairie lands. Grizzlies occur throughout Alaska, the western third of Canada, and in the northern Rocky Mountains of the U.S.
Before you see a bear:
Most problems with bears can be avoided by not surprising them. If you’re hiking through bear country, make your presence known–especially where the terrain or vegetation makes it hard to see. Make noise, sing, talk loudly or clap. If possible, travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect.
Once you see a bear:
- Do not run! They may try to chase you, and bears are faster than you think.
- Back away slowly and let the bear know you’re there.
- If the bear is aware of you speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head.
- Keep your kids behind you.
- Note: Bears that stand up on their hind legs are not necessarily threatening you, but merely trying to identify you. They also occasionally make bluff charges, sometimes coming within ten feet of a person before stopping or veering off. STAND STILL until the bear moves away, then slowly back off.
- If you have bear spray use it.
- If you are attacked it may be best for you to play dead. Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach, and your hands laced around the back of your neck. Leave your pack on to protect your back and vital organs.
- If your kids are with you, make yourself the object of attack. Send them up a tree, tell them to scatter in several directions, and keep yourself between the bear and the kids as best you can.
- If the attack is prolonged, change tactics and fight back vigorously.
- More info here.
There are, of course, other things that can get you on a hike. And we’re sure that after reading this over you’ll never want to set foot outside again, so we won’t even bring those up ;). But remember this: If you add all these attacks up over the last 100 years, it is still a very small number of people compared to the number outside for work or play every day.
Be aware, but be outside!
And as always, additional tips and stories are always welcome.