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How to Avoid and Survive Attacks by Large Mammals

(Photo: Lee Coursey)

Recent stories of tragic encounters with wildlife remind us to be wary and practice caution in the wilderness. What actions can you take to avoid being attacked by big mammals? What actions increase your chance of survival if you are attacked?

Lions, Goats, and Bears… Oh my!

Although violent encounters between humans and big mammals of the Pacific Northwest are nothing new, two recent incidents that have been widely discussed in the news (see box below) are grave reminders that the wilderness is still wild. Mountain goats– native to the North Cascades of Washington and introduced into the Olympic Mountains– now join mountain lions and bears on the list of beasts that we should be wary of. Mountain goats are charming animals and can seem pretty gentle. It’s hard to imagine them as killers. I have been very close to goats in Olympic National Park and know how benevolent they can seem. Ditto for black bears. But any large animal is a potential danger, whether in the backcountry or in your backyard. Deer, for example, have killed people.

John Chelminiak was mauled by a black bear in Washington. The attack happened on the evening of Sept. 17, when Chelminiak was walking his dogs near his cabin on Lake Wenatchee. The bear appeared suddenly and bit into Chelminiak’s head, gnawing flesh off the man’s skull as the two grappled. Chelminiak ended up losing his left eye, but he survived and is recovering. Another attack victim, Robert Boardman, was not so lucky. Boardman was killed by a territorial male mountain goat in the Olympic Mountains on Oct 16. The goat chased and then pierced Boardman’s leg with its horns. Boardman bled to death as the goat stood over him. Both the bear and the mountain goat were later killed by wildlife managers.

The Rules for Avoiding Attacks

The good news is that deadly attacks are rare and largely avoidable. By following a few rules, you can greatly reduce the chance that you will be attacked. The following rules are for primarily for dealing with mountain lions and bears, but are appropriate for most big mammals, carnivorous or otherwise. These are the rules I follow. I am not claiming that these are the only things you can do to avoid dangerous encounters with wildlife. If you know of other helpful guidelines, post a comment below to tell me about them.

1. Be Aware

Be aware of which large, potentially dangerous animals live in the area you are heading to. You can do this with a little online research or by consulting a field guide.

Be aware of your surroundings while you are in the wilderness (or near wilderness areas). Natural places are often peaceful and feel very safe. These places generally are safe when compared to big cities. But common sense still applies; just as you would keep an eye out for potential dangers in an urban area, you should maintain at least a background level of attentiveness while out in the wild. Who knows what might be lurking around that bend of the trail?

Learn how to recognize the scat (i.e. poop) and tracks of big mammals. If you spot fresh bear scat on the trail, you will know that you need to be extra cautious.

Be aware of the time of day. Evening and after dark are when many mammals are most active and when we humans can’t see well. You need to be very alert at these times.

The closest and scariest encounter I had with a black bear happened when I wasn’t being very aware of my surroundings. I was walking across a mountain meadow, with my head down and eyes fixed on my GPS device. I looked up and there was a huge black bear, grazing in the meadow about 20 feet from me. I yelped reflexively, which spooked the bear. His fur bristled and he made a deep whuff sound. Then he turned and ran off. I was lucky, but since then I’ve been careful to be more aware in the wilderness.

2. Keep your distance

If you see a potentially dangerous animal from a distance, don’t get closer. It’s understandable that you might be curious and interested in getting a better look. Observing large mammals in nature can be a wonderful experience, but be sure you keep lots of space between yourself and them. If you want a closer look, use binoculars.

3. Make noise

Most mammals will flee the area when they see or hear humans. If you make a racket as you walk through the wilderness– clapping your hands, singing, talking loudly, etc.– the furry natives will clear out before you catch sight of them. Being noisy also reduces the chance that you will surprise a big animal. This is important because a surprised, confused animal may attack in self defense. If you have a close encounter, talk loudly or shout at the animal to keep it away.

4. Minimize food odors and food visibility

Keep your food contained and out of site. Bears and mountain lions have a powerful sense of smell and can be attracted by food odors. Don’t invite trouble by being sloppy with smelly food. Use bear-proof containers if you can. Savvy bears that are familiar with people may be able to recognize food items by sight as well, so keep your food containers hidden when possible.

5. Don’t run

Pretty much every dangerous mammal can outrun a human, so forget running away as a defense strategy. If you have to face off with an animal, keep your eyes on it and back away slowly if you can. Yell and make yourself look as large as possible, by flaring out your jacket for example.

6. Carry a weapon

You may be able to fend off an attack with a solid hiking stick or trekking pole. Bear deterrent pepper spray can be a good option. I’m not a big fan of guns, but I realize that firearms can be pretty handy in a pinch. Guns should only be used as a last resort, of course, when there is no question that the animal is about to attack or it has already attacked.

7. Leave the dog at home

This one is a little counter-intuitive, I know. Having a canine companion with you in the wilderness seems like a good idea, for protection purposes. However, dogs can easily frighten or anger a mountain lion or bear, causing the big predator to attack when it otherwise would not. An off-leash dog running around in the brush can attract a big predator and lead it back to you. If you can’t stand to be without good ol’ Max, keep him on a leash and under control, at the very least.

Surviving Attacks

To fight back or play dead, that is the question. The answer is not simple and depends on which species you are faced with and what it’s behavior is. If you are attacked by a mountain lion or black bear, your best bet is to fight back. Unless the attack is happening because you cornered or surprised one of these animals, you are probably being seen as prey. If so, playing dead will just make you an easy dinner. If the attacker is a grizzly bear (highly unlikely anywhere in Washington or Oregon), it’s possible that the bear is only defending its territory or cubs. In this case, playing dead will signal to the bear that you are not a threat and the attack may stop. But grizzlies sometimes attack humans as prey. If the bear was quiet and stealthy in its approach, circling and stalking, then the attack is probably predatory. Fight back in this situation. If you are going to be in grizzly country, you should learn how to tell the difference between this species and the black bear.

In reality, the terror and swiftness of an attack may make it impossible for you to make a logical decision about how to react. I imagine that my instinct would be to fight like hell, no matter what. But playing dead has apparently saved the lives of some bear attack victims. Be smart and humble when you walk in places where dangerous animals dwell. Obey the rules of avoidance and don’t assume that you can beat up a bear in hand-to-paw combat.

Last Word

When we choose to venture into the wilderness or to live near wild places, we are taking certain risks. One is the risk of being attacked by wildlife. We shouldn’t curse the animals– they are just living as they always have. I believe that they deserve our respect and admiration. Although the prospect of being mauled by a wild beast is frightening, and it’s sad when people do get killed, the fact that this is still a possibility in this increasingly domesticated world is, to me, pretty cool. Of course I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to die, and I don’t wish for other people to get hurt. But part of what I seek in the mountains, forests, and deserts is old-school adventure. Big mammals that live in these places embody the unpredictability and danger that are the raw ingredients of adventure.

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1 comment… add one

  • jill i November 5, 2010, 2:51 PM

    Timely post indeed. I personally worry about cougars since I’m only 5’2″ and not very big. Also saw a mama black bear and two cubs once and that scared me. Thanks for this information!

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