For hundreds of years the rule for dealing with potentially dangerous wildlife was, “shoot on sight”. As pioneers moved westward, this helped to keep the threat of attack on humans on ranches and remote settlements to a minimum, and reinforced a predator’s natural fear of humans.
In some cases, predators were hunted almost to extinction, which caused an imbalance in natural wildlife where populations of prey animals, such as deer, grew out of control. This caused the spread of animal diseases and other problems. Since the 1970s and the introduction of the Endangered Species Act, much of that balance has been restored and many predators have recently been removed from the Endangered Species Act list as their populations grew.
Populations of most potentially threatening predators are on the rise, and many animals are losing their fear of humans as more humans encroach on their natural habitat. The process of an animal losing their natural fear of humans is called habitation, and is a direct result of increased exposure to humans and human activities. While this does not affect all predators, it will affect some. We are seeing this happen more often. In some cases half of the attacks from animal predators on humans reported during the past 100 years have occurred during the last 20 years.
The best way to encourage animals to lose their fear of humans is to provide them with food. This is never a good idea when you are dealing with dangerous animals. Predators are unpredictable. Some may actually seem docile and well-behaved, until something triggers an attack.
There are other reasons for an animal attack. As a former Minnesota resident who frequented the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness park on the Canadian border several times per summer, we were always keenly aware that any of the frequent Black Bear sightings could result in an attack. Although black bear attacks are not common, they do occur. We currently live in Arizona and we are avid hikers. The most common problem predator in this area is the Mountain Lion, also known as a Puma and Cougar. This animal has been known to attack hikers and bikers.
There are published lists of fatal bear attacks and fatal cougar attacks in North America; however, the lists appear to be incomplete because I know the details of several fatal bear attacks in Wyoming and Minnesota that do not show up on the published lists.
Avoiding Wild Animal Attacks
The best way to avoid wild animal attacks is to warn predators of your presence. More often than not, black bear attacks are the result of someone accidentally getting between a mother bear and her cubs. In a few cases, bears have been found to be injured and starving because they could no longer hunt their natural food. Grizzly bears are much more aggressive than black bears, so if you are venturing into Grisly Bear areas, you need to be particularly cautious.
Whenever we are hiking into wilderness areas, we always wear jingle bells affixed to our belts or packs. These can be found at most craft and hobby stores. Use the large, one inch to inch-and-a-half jungle bells. The bells should be attached to key chain or cord so that they hang loose. The noise that they produce as you walk along a trail will warn any predators further up the trail of your presence, and they will most likely move away from the area. This eliminates the possibility that you may startle an animal or get between a mother and her cubs or kittens.
These days, women are enjoying the wilderness adventure much more often. However, there is an old warning that may have merit. Women should never venture into a predator’s territory when they are menstruating. The smell of blood is something that predators are keenly attuned to and a hungry animal could associate the smell of blood as belonging to wounded prey.
Surviving a Bear Attack
Black bears can be found in 41 USA states, throughout all of Canada and even in Mexico. A typical adult black bear can weigh over 600 pounds and they are extremely strong. Black bears are not normally aggressive toward humans unless they are injured, starving or have cubs to protect. However, because of their strength, it is best to avoid them. Black bears are good short term runners, good swimmers and excellent tree climbers.
Grizzly bears, other brown bears and polar bears can be much larger and are typically much more aggressive. Grizzly bears can weigh more than 1000 pounds. A full size Polar bear can weigh 1500 pounds.
Black bears are easily the most numerous bears in North America. When their habitat is close to that of humans, black bears can become nuisance animals that raid trash cans and sometimes break into homes and cabins in search of food. When camping in bear country, never bring food into a tent. If a tree is available, throw a rope over a branch and hang the food in a sack at least 10 feet above the ground and far enough from the trunk so that they can not climb the tree and steal it. Never leave food scraps around a camp site. Burn all scraps and promptly clean dishes.
An angry bear may growl, make short charges and click its teeth. If you can avoid it, never run from a bear, because their instinct will cause them to pursue and attack you. Most of the time, a bear will threaten you with a short charge or will stand on its hind feet. The best tactic with a short charge is to wait until the bear stops moving and then back away slowly. Some people have found that talking to a bear softly in a monotone voice will calm them down. Sometimes opening and spreading a coat or parka will make you look much larger and the bear will back away. Never make a fast, aggressive move towards an angry bear. Some victims of attacks have found that playing dead or curling up on the ground with your hands locked over the back of the neck will cause a bear to lose interest in the attack. The idea here is to play “very dead”. If you start to scream or wiggle if a bear starts pawing you or takes a nip at you leg, he will most likely try to finish you off.
If you are in the wilderness and in bear or cougar country, carry a can of bear spray or pepper spray to help fend off an attack. Sometimes throwing things at a bear or making load noises, like banging pots together, will scare off a bear that is rooting through your gear. Never hike alone in bear country. There is a certain safety in numbers, because bears will rarely attack a group of people.
One time we were goose hunting in the Churchill, Manitoba area, which is the polar bear capital of the world. Polar bears are enormous bears that can be very aggressive. Once they attack, they move so fast that it is like a freight coming right at you. The guides instructed us on how to defend ourselves from a polar bear attack. The tactic was to wait until they were about 20 feet away and hit them in the face with a load of buckshot. At that point, most bears will spin to one side, at which point you shoot them again just below the shoulder and behind the front leg. The hope its that you will shatter the bear’s heart. If you do not, and the bear is not hurt badly, your chances for survival diminish rapidly.
Surviving a Cougar or Mountain Lion Attack
Mountain lions are also called cougars or pumas. They are a large solitary cat with an estimated USA population of about 50,000. Cougars are an ambush killer that strikes quickly. Their normal diet consists of deer, elk and bighorn sheep. While mountain lions usually avoid humans, the number of attacks on humans is increasing. This could be due to habitation or recent drought conditions in many states that make it more difficult to find their natural prey.
Cougars are known to attack bikers and joggers, most likely because they look like running prey. They will pounce on their victim and try to bite the back of their neck to break the spine or sever an artery.
Once again, always travel in numbers, never alone. If threatened by a cougar, open and spread a coat or shirt to make yourself look larger. Back away slowly. If a cougar attacks and you manage to escape, be wary and expect a follow-up attack. Cougars will stalk their prey. Do not drop to the ground and curl up. This may look submissive and the cat will close in to finish the attack. Pepper spray may help to fend off an attack or give you a chance to escape.
If a cougar grabs hold of you, try to gouge its eyes, punch them in the throat or choke them. Once attacked by a cat, you need to fight, rather than submit. I have read more than one story where someone survived a cougar attack by ramming their fist and arm down a cat’s throat, thus choking them to death. Yeah, your arm will be injured and will need lots of stitches, but at least you may be able to talk about it. These cats are extremely aggressive. Their claws can rip you to shreds in seconds. Once they have you, you must fight as if your life depends upon it, because it does.