Close Encounters of the Wild Kind
By Gary Benton
We've all seen the action movie where the hero is spending the night in the woods and he is forced to fight for his life against a pack of wild hungry wolves. At some point in the movie our hero wrestles with the wolves and eventually saves his camp as well as his life. While this makes for a very exciting movie, it's not very realistic from a wildlife point of view. I would suspect you are much safer from a wild animal attack in the field hunting than you are driving down to the corner supermarket. While animal attacks do happen, they are very rare, unless the injured party has in some way allowed the attack to happen in the first place.
Most animal related injuries (bites, cuts, bruises, or other blunt trauma) are often due to the injured person not understanding wild life. I have seen more than one person take an injured, but wild animal home to care for it, only to be injured at some point in the process. Granted most of these animals were small game (raccoons, opossums, squirrels, or rabbits), but wild animals are just that . . . wild. I suggest if you see an injured or sick animal you contact your government wildlife agency and let them do the rescuing. Most of the time wild animal injuries or attacks are direct results of the human doing something wrong, though there have been cases where a healthy animal has behaved in a way that is not typical. Additionally, there are those other “critters” we share the field with that are known to bite and I'm speaking of snakes. Most of us, if we spend enough time in the woods, will eventually discover a snake along the trail or in our camp.
Snakes, is a word spoken when I was young that was right up there with the boogieman. I was especially scared of the name of one local poisonous snake, the Copperhead. Over the years though, I have learned that snakes do not really live up to the terrible reputation they have acquired. I have also discovered that most snakes will avoid you (like most animals), if they have a choice. If you make some noise when you move the snake, if possible, will move away and you'll never see it. Most bites occur when a person places a foot, leg, arm or hand near a snake that may be cornered. However, keep in mind, less than ten percent of the snakes in the world are dangerous to man and so even if you're bitten the odds are it will not be from a poisonous snake. But, if you are bitten most doctors will suggest you,
Do not let the injured person drink any alcohol
Do not cut the wound in any manner (this used to be suggested)
Do not suck the poison out (this used to be done by mouth and is not suggested)
Do not use a tourniquet (also suggested before, but not now)
Do not use ice on the injured area
DO wash and clean the bite with soap and water, immobilize the bite, treat for shock, and immediately seek medical attention. Statistics show that less than one half of one percent of people bitten by a poisonous snake will die from the bite, even if left untreated.
But, what about other large animal threats in the field?
Bear attacks are in my opinion serious situations to deal with, despite the fact they are rarely experienced by most folks. I lived for over six years in Alaska and only saw one wild grizzly in the field, and that was during a caribou hunt (I backed off and left the area). I am not saying they are not there or a possible threat, but use some common sense in the woods to avoid them. Unless I am hunting I will carry a cowbell and the noise seems to keep bears away from me. I also carry bear pepper spray, which works well in all cases I've heard about. Most wild animals will avoid you, if they know you are coming, though there are exceptions to this. I think most bears are a bit like humans in that their behavior (mood) reflects what is going on around them. I suspect that any healthy animal may attack if cornered with no way out, or as psychologist call it, fight or flight. But, keep in mind, bears are short tempered and should be taken as a serious threat when seen in the wild. Always leave a way out for any wild animal, but what if you encounter a bear in the field?
The Canadian Ministry of Environment suggests,
Keep your campsite clean, with garbage disposed of and fresh food placed out of reach (I throw a rope over a limb, pull the food up at least ten feet out of reach, and use a solid container). A good place for your food is the trunk of your car, but never in your tent.
Try to always travel with others. The more folks along the less likely an attack will occur, but it can still happen.
Make noise, especially if you are alone (unless hunting), and you can do this by using a cowbell, singing, talking, clapping your hands and so on. This is important in thick forests, where you've seen bear sign or fresh tracks.
Keep your eyes open for bear tracks, freshly killed animals, and if you smell a musky strong odor be very cautious. Additionally, avoid streams during salmon spawning and be extra careful around berry patches and thick brush.
Never go near a fresh kill, because the bear may be near and want to guard his hard earned meal.
If you do spot a bear, leave the area very slowly and do not run. Bears may associate your running with game (dinner) and chase you from instinct. Never get between a momma bear and her cubs, never.
Never feed the bear food so you can get some good bear photographs or so you can get closer to the animal. This is both dumb and dangerous.
If you come face to face with a bear, do not make direct eye contact with the beast, they might take that as a threat.
Remember to make noise, use a bell, clap your hands, scream, sing, or throw rocks.
Do not approach a bear at any time. Keep in mind not to run or try to climb a tree, the bear can run and climb faster than you can.
Black bears might back off if challenged, but if you are attacked you should fight, scream, yell, and be aggressive. Once again, it depends on the bear as to whether they will back off or not.
Kerry Gunther of the Bear Management Office in Yellowstone Park suggests you back away and try to make yourself inconspicuous when you encounter any bear. He further adds if you're facing a grizzly bear, “Stand your ground. If the grizzly hits you, fall and play dead.”
If you are attacked by a bear,
Drop to the ground and make yourself as small as you can by rolling into a ball.
Clasp your hands over the back of your neck and remain still (if you are wearing a backpack keep it on to protect your head and neck.
Now, we share the woods and fields with other animals besides bears and snakes. Let's look at cougars, moose, other large cats, coyotes and wolves, and see how we can avoid attacks. While some of you may think that each of these animals would need a different approach to avoid an attack and in some situations they may, however there are some common sense items that are common.
Never approach a wild animal.
Never tease, threaten, or run toward a wild animal.
Never abuse a wild animal or cause it pain.
Never attempt to pet any wild animal, but especially large ones (bigger injuries can occur).
Never feed a wild animal or attempt to “take care” of it if injured.
Always back off slowly, if you unexpectedly meet an animal on the trail, and move away from the animal allowing it room to run from you if it's cornered.
If you happen to suddenly encounter any large animal on the trail, you should try to stay calm (may be hard to do depending on the animal you discover), stand still at first (may be hard to do as well), do not run (running will most likely be your first thought), talk very softly to the animal, and back away from it slowly. Remember not make any sudden moves. If the animal sees you as either a threat or a source of food it may attack, but most are scared of mankind. So, now we know what to do if we meet a wild animal, what else what do we need to know about some of them.
Cougars are very large members of the cat family and while their attacks are rare they do happen. According to the Canadian Ministry of Environment, it seems this animal may be attracted to children due to their high-pitched voices, smaller size (food source size perhaps), and irregular movements. It is suspected that cougars are not able to properly identify children as humans and they may think youngsters are prey. Our neighbors up north suggest,
Have children play in groups, the more the safer.
Keep an eye on the kids at all times.
If you have a dog, keep it near the children. A dog can see, smell, and hear the big cat way before we can do so and it will act as an early warning system.
Keep a radio or portable T.V. playing to create noise.
Keep the kids near during hours of darkness.
Many cougar attacks could be prevented if you follow the same simple guidelines I have used for moving in the field around bears. Make noise, stay in groups, avoid killed prey, and so on. However, never turn your back on a cougar and remain upright at all times. Additionally, do all you can to make yourself look larger and do not try to hide or roll up in a ball, because neither will work effectively. If you are attacked, fight back as hard as you can with whatever you can pick up to show the animal you are not prey. Most cougar attacks are the result of normal predator (after prey) behaviors by the big cat and thus somewhat predictable, but there are exceptions to all rules.
Most of us whole have been up north have seen a moose and they remind me of a cow on stilts. While they may be neat to photograph and watch, I read in the Anchorage Daily News a few years back where a man was killed by a moose on the grounds of a nearby university. Moose are not usually considered to be serious threats of attack by most people, but they have the potential to seriously injure or kill you. While I lived in Alaska , moose were “the biggest attack threat”, or so it seemed at least in my neighborhood. So, what about moose?
Never feed a moose.
Never threaten or tease a moose.
Never get between a cow and calf.
Never allow your dog to chase a moose or harass it.
Never corner a moose around houses, trees, or fenced in yards, it may attack out of fear.
If a moose attacks you, ball up and cover your head. Stay as still as you can and make no quick movements.
Keep in mind if the animals hump is standing up and it's ears are back it may be ready to attack you or is at least scared. If that happens, try to make yourself appear to be larger than you are by raising your arms and extending your fingers, but make NO quick movements.
Bobcats are smaller members of the big cat family and they are somewhat inactive during the winter months. Lynx are another member of the cat family and they are a bit larger than a bobcat, even though the bobcat is considered to be the more aggressive of the two. It is possible to encounter either animal up north, but remember most attacks are simply scratches and clawing, but each have been known to go for the throat of a victim during an attack. So, protect your face and throat if you are attacked by one of these cats. The same precautions and preventative action as suggested for other large predators is recommended.
I saved the wolves and coyotes for last, and on purpose, because I started this article with them. Of all the larger animals we share the woods and fields with the dog family (wolves and coyotes) gets the worse media attention. It is almost impossible to watch a wild western movie, or read an outdoor adventure book, that does not have a vicious wolf attack at some point. While all of this in a movie or book leads to excitement and action, it is basically untrue. I have never, in over thirty years in the field, known of a wolf attacking a healthy man unless cornered. It is almost unheard of for a healthy wolf or coyote to attack a human, but I'm sure if the animal felt threatened or was starving they would attack. But, unlike the movies or in books, strong healthy wolves and coyotes do not attack a man unless there is no other option, because they fear man. Once again the basic precautions and preventative actions as recommended for any large predators are recommended for wolves and coyotes. Make sure you move slowly, back away, and leave the area. Keep in mind to leave the animal a way out and not to corner it.
If you are attacked by an animal and injured, you should the injury with soap and water, then disinfect it. Keep in mind, often it may be a gorge, cut, crushing of a bone, or scratches, that you'll be treating. At times there may be a lot of blood loss, so remember your basic first aid and stop the bleeding first. The results of a bite may be deeper than you suspect and the most serious aspect of the wound may be the risk of infection. Infection is common from animal claws and teeth, which are dirty and may have bits of decayed meat on them. There may also be trauma from being thrown, dragged, pulled, or from impact with an object. If you sustain an animal injury always seek medical attention as soon as possible. Besides the danger from the wound, there is also a possibility of rabies.
Wild animal attacks do happen, but not as often as we'd think. I have spent years hunting, fishing, camping and hiking in the woods, all over the world, and I have yet to be attacked by a large predator. Have I been lucky? I think not, I have always kept my eyes open, made noise (unless hunting), and been prepared for close encounters of the wild kind. I suggest bear pepper spray and a cow bell for everyone venturning into bear country too. Use common sense in the field, stay safe and I'll see you on the trails of North America.
Resources used in this article are from the U.S. National Parks Service, the Bear Management Office in Yellowstone Park , The Canadian Ministry of Environment, as well as the American Medical Association.
Wild Animal Attacks