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What to know when encountering wild animals

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.

VENOMOUS SNAKES

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.

MOUNTAIN LIONS

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.

BEARS

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.

18 Comments so far

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  1. Excellent article. I have lived and worked outside in the southern Arizona desert for the last five years. I have stepped over, interrupted, spooked and tripped on rattlesnakes (accidentally, of course) many times and have never been bitten. Generally, if you leave them alone, they’ll rattle and leave you alone. WIth that said, be careful of the baby rattlesnakes, as they can be more likely to strike and inject venom more than an adult, as they are smaller and more prone to protect themselves.
    I find that bees and catcus are more dangerous.

    • Amanda – I even stepped on a Mojave Green once and still didn’t get bit! Think I surprised it more than it surprised me, but your right. They don’t seem to WANT to have to strike at you. I think I get more worried about sunburns in the desert! Thanks for the comment!

  2. Great article. Living in Calgary, we can and do encounter all these animals as we explore the mountains, foothills and the badlands of Alberta.

  3. Brian

    I was running after dark this spring, early March or late February, on the bench above Draper and came across a coyote standing on the trail. It was not happy I was there and barked and made all kinds of noise. Nellie didn’t seem to care…some protector she is. I finally won the battle of wills and the coyote to move off the trail, with the encouragement of a couple rocks lobbed it’s way (throws with little effort were landing right next to it). But of course now I was a bit spooked and had a few miles of trail between me and pavement. About 10-15 minutes after my coyote encounter I heard something behind me (not Nellie, she was 40′+ out front). So I turned and shined my headlamp on the trail and surrounding hill, there 20′ above the trail was a set of eyes staring back at me. Never really sure what it was, needless to say, I ran that last bit faster and kept Nellie much closer. I don’t get spooked too easy but being late winter I was much more aware of the fact that many of the animals are hungry and looking for easy food. The other thing is that there are deer all over the area, and where there are deer there will mountain lions. It also doesn’t help that at a bridge crossing on the trail there is a picture of a mountain lion standing on said bridge, taken by a motion sensor camera.

    • Brian – That’s crazy! I’ve had similar experiences with coyotes, but it’s always in the spring when they have pups around. Winter would make me a bit more nervous, and unidentifiable eyes would send me into a serious sprint. K-So never seems to want to protect me either, but I wonder what they would do if you ever actually got attacked…

  4. I only paid attention to the snake information but it makes me squeamish just to click on the link to identify them. However, I appreciate your explanations – although the wrapping part was a bit confusing. Thanks so much for this post. It makes me less nervous that if we pay attention to your rules, we’re less likley to run into snakes and/or be bitten by them.

    • Monique, The wrapping part confused me too at first. To help you here are a couple of links to the ‘proper’ technique. Apparently this is the newest-best thing to do for a snake bite and it is called the pressure immobilization technique. This one is from a website in Australia, specific to ankles, but I think the pictures make it easy to understand. Australia is where this technique is most widely used. For the record, you should also look at this website, which points out some of the controversy still surrounding the technique (i.e., if it will be a long time until you see the doctor, and the bite is from a rattlesnake, it might be better not to wrap it).
      Best of all would be simply to never get bit, right? =) Take a hiking stick and use it to poke around in areas where you aren’t sure before you step. Listen and look at where you put your feet. And (most importantly) enjoy your hike!

  5. Great article! I am petrified of being stalked by a Mtn Lion, but don’t give Bear, Elk or Moose a second thought! (Must be the Alaskan in me…) ;)

  6. Interesting! I am well versed with the Bear, but was clueless about the snakes! I too live in Alaska and haven’t had much interaction with Mtn Lions or snakes! Thank you for this article.

  7. Excellent article. The advice is very well laid out.
    I thought there were differences in what to do when encountering a brown or black bear, which always confused me, but you put it across well here.

    I live in the UK. We only have one poisonous snake, which I’ve trodden on. It’s not that deadly. The most dangerous creature is the human.

    • Gav – Ya, I think I worry more about encounter crazy people on the trail than crazy animals… ;)

  8. Sarah

    Love this. I’m most scared of snakes– copperheads in particular. *shudder* And I hear such conflicting information on snake bites (sucking versus non-sucking). And of course people love to tell their wild animal stories.
    I did grow up around packs of coyotes– they were all through our woods as a kid. I remember walking through the woods at night with my sister and arguing over who would go last (and have their butt bitten) because the coyotes were watching us in the dark– you could see their eyes and hear the yips. But they are pretty small.

    Fun times. Now I’m a freak in my suburban wilderness, haha.

    • Sarah – Hahaa, I love the butt bitten comment. I’m going to try that on my kids during our next night hike. Never-mind, they would never hike with me again.

  9. [...] For a boy who’s mind and feet are in a constant battle for ‘first’, randomly tripping off the side of the trail or barging into bushes unexpectedly is common place. Which brings up another concern: those bushes with things like rattlesnakes hidden inside. This actually happened last weekend on our hike. Only thank goodness the dog barged ahead first. And no, no one was bit. That is reason #1 for having a dog . [For a great post on encountering wild animals, visit here: What to do when encountering wild animals.] [...]

  10. Heather

    We went camping at Black Lake National Forest campground in Wisconsin, near Hayward at the end of July. We were in a walk-in site which was secluded from the rest of the campground. During the night we heard wolves howling, then we heard them running on the trail, followed by an animal’s scream. The next thing we knew, we were listening to them sniffing around our tents. One doesn’t have to go to Alaska to encounter wolves! They are off the endangered species list in Wisconsin, and I believe people are even hunting them.

    My biggest concern would be mountain lions because they are so stealth and could be on your back before you know it. I won’t be doing any hiking at night!

  11. [...] wrote a post a while back called what to know when encountering wild animals. Take a look, pick out the animals that live in your area and go over basic information with your [...]

  12. Aurora

    Ok…now I’m scurred…lol. Thought about having a backyard adventure…ummm nevermind. All this talk about… lions, tigers, and bears(maybe not tigers) Oh My!!! Love the outdoors, but this got me flipping out. I don’t think I will not ever be looking over my shoulder for a set of eyes peering at me now, hahahaa! My goodness..ok I can do this…it’s for the kids…whew!

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