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In modern televised media, animal attacks are often exaggerated to the point of appearing ridiculous. You’ve probably seen one of the many TV shows we’re referring to. The deep-voiced narrator ominously recounts the gory details of an animal attack as slow-motion video of teeth, fangs, and claws flash on the screen. It seems outlandish, to say the least. In this day and age, with all our modern weapons, technology, and medical advancements, are animal attacks really still a threat? Statistically speaking, yes they are—especially if you’re an outdoorsman, hiker, or survivalist.
A 2012 study in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine Journal analyzed mortality data from the CDC, and found that 1,802 people were fatally injured by animals between 1999 and 2007 in the United States. At first glance, this may seem like a relatively small number, but keep in mind that it only refers to reported fatalities—thousands more were seriously injured, and may have died if it weren’t for immediate medical treatment. In a true survival scenario, you may not have access to medical care, so it’s crucial to know what you’re up against before heading out into the wild.
So, what should you do in case of an animal attack? We’ve answered this question for three of America’s most common and dangerous mammals, and also provided evasion strategies that may help you avoid being attacked in the first place.
Note: The information presented in this article is general in nature. Always consult with experts and take every precaution before interacting with or approaching any potentially dangerous animal.
Appearance: Black bears and grizzly or Alaskan brown bears are the most common types in the United States. Black bears are smaller, averaging around 300-400 pounds, and have fur ranging from jet black to blond as well as a lighter-colored muzzle. Grizzly or Alaskan brown bears average at 800-1500 pounds, and have longer brown fur with pronounced shoulder humps.
Geographic Location: Black bears can be found throughout the U.S., but are most common in the northeast and northwest, as well as the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Brown and grizzly bears are found primarily in the northwest and Alaska.
Behavioral Patterns: In most instances, a bear will act defensively around humans. It may open and shut its jaws, snort, swat the ground, or charge short distances to scare you away. If you surprise a bear at close range, or it approaches within 20 to 30 feet of you, an attack is much more likely.
Here’s an example of a “bluff charge” used by a grizzly bear on a group of fishermen. When the charge fails to scare them away, the bear becomes less aggressive.
Avoidance Strategy: If you encounter a any bear at a distance, speak in a calm monotone voice, and attempt to maintain visual contact while backing away slowly. Black bears (and ONLY black bears) may be discouraged by standing tall and yelling or making loud noises—but never try this with a brown bear or grizzly! With brown or grizzly bears, back away slowly and leave the area, but do not turn your back, run, or make sudden movements.
Defense Strategy: If a bear gets within 20-30 feet or makes physical contact, how you should react depends on the type of bear. Bear spray or mace is always the best option, and has been proven to be almost twice as effective at deterring a charging bear than even a large-caliber firearm. If the attack involves a surprised grizzly bear or a mother grizzly with cubs, roll onto your stomach and play dead while covering your head and neck with your hands. Then remain stationary until the bear leaves the area. In any other case, or in a prolonged attack, kick, punch, or stab the bear’s face, eyes, and nose.
Below, a hunter perched in a tree encounters a curious black bear, which climbed up to reach him:
Appearance: Healthy adult male mountain lions tend to be about 140 pounds, 2 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder, and tan in color with a lighter underbody. Mountain lions are also known as cougars or panthers, and share similar biology (but different coloration) to the leopards and jaguars found outside the United States.
Geographic Location: The Mountain Lion Foundation claims there are approximately 20,000-40,000 mountain lions in the United States, virtually all of which reside in the western half of the country. Most mountain lions are found west of the Rocky Mountains, although there is a small population of about 100 in Florida.
Behavioral Patterns: Mountain lions are camouflage experts, and rarely make themselves seen to humans, preferring to hide in dense undergrowth. They hunt primarily at night, dusk, and dawn, and typically kill a single deer (their primary prey) every 10 to 14 days. When hunting or preparing to attack, mountain lions crouch low to the ground, maintain direct eye contact, and creep slowly towards their prey, almost always attacking from the side or rear.
A group of Coyotes in Yosemite National Park fend off a Mountain Lion. Fortunately for the coyotes, the mountain lion wasn’t looking for a fight:
Avoidance Strategy: Be alert, as most attacks are sneak attacks. When encountering a mountain lion at a distance of more than 50 yards, stand tall, remain calm, and slowly back away while maintaining visual contact. Do not turn your back or run, act imposing, and appear as large as possible. If the animal approaches closer or shows interest, make loud noises and throw rocks or sticks in its direction. If the mountain lion gets within 25 yards, prepare for an attack.
Defense Strategy: Similar to bears, pepper spray or mace is a very effective deterrent. Firearms may also be effective, but mountain lions can run 40-50 miles per hour and will be difficult to hit at close range. Try to remain standing, since mountain lions target the head and neck. If you’re knocked down, strike or stab at the head and eyes.
Appearance: The average North American grey wolf or timber wolf is approximately 110 pounds, stands 2.5-3 feet at the shoulder, and has fur that is mottled gray and brown. For comparison, an average domesticated German Shepherd is 2 feet at the shoulder and 75-95 pounds. Although domesticated dogs have substantially different physiology from their wolf ancestors, defense strategies against wolves should generally work against wild dogs as well. If observing animal tracks in the wild, wolves tend to produce “single tracks” by placing their rear foot onto the mark made by their front foot, while domestic dog tracks have staggered dual front and rear foot track patterns.
Geographic Location: Wolves tend to occupy the midwest and northwest United States, with a smaller population present in the southwest. There is also a substantial wolf presence throughout Alaska and Canada. Wolf population density is generally low, with each 5-7 member wolf pack covering a territory of approximately 70 square miles. After falling drastically in the past, wolf population is once again on the rise in the United States, and the western gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2008.
Behavioral Patterns: Wolf attacks on healthy adults are rare, but wolves are opportunists, so they may target the weak, the injured, or young children. Wolves hunt by working in packs and forcing their prey animals to run, often to the point of exhaustion. Wolves also use their presence to intimidate prey, and use environmental obstacles such as deep snow or bodies of water to their advantage. They then surround the prey and attack in groups. Rabies-induced aggression has also proven to be a factor in many wolf attacks on humans, though it is less prevalent in wolves within the U.S. than Europe or Asia.
Avoidance Strategy: If you see a wolf at a distance, do not make direct eye contact, and do not run. Take a non-aggressive stance and back away slowly, but maintain visual. If the wolf continues to pursue you, or displays aggressive behavior such as baring its teeth, try the opposite tactic—make loud noises and appear as large as possible. This may discourage the animal long enough for you to escape or climb a tree.
Defense Strategy: As with other mammals, pepper spray and firearms can be used. If you’re knocked down, try to protect your neck and head, and target the wolf’s eyes and throat. Choking the animal has even been proven to work in some cases.