When we spend time in the outdoors, there’s always a chance for dangerous encounters with wildlife.
When most of us hear about dangerous encounters in the wild, likely, things like bears, mountain lions, bison, moose, and poisonous snakes come to mind. Those things are all definitely on the list, and we’ll talk about those but, some other critters should make the list and be planned for as well. In this article, we’re going to dive into it!
In North America, we have three pretty massive beasts that come to mind in terms of being highly dangerous animals. One of them is bears. We have a few varieties of bears ranging from the massive brown bears of Alaska, grizzlies, and of course, black bears. I suppose we could include the polar bear as well but certainly not something commonly seen for most of us. So, if we encounter a bear in the wilderness, how should we react, and what should we do? Surprisingly for some, the answer is really dependent on the type of bear.
Before we get into that though, let’s be responsible here and discuss a few ways to avoid an encounter when possible. One of the reasons bears attack is because of a surprise encounter at a close distance where they are startled. Bears, like humans, also have a fight or flight response. I’ve spoken to folks who literally almost bumped into a large bear in thick brush, and it resulted in the bear and human both freezing for a second in “oh crap” mode before the bear ran away. There are also lots of stories where the same scenario didn’t work out so well for the human. So, if we can avoid that surprise encounter altogether, we’ve already reduced the odds of an adverse outcome.
Some people actually wear bells when they are out hiking or exploring so that they can be heard by bears. Others just yell hey bear as they round blind corners or make their way through thick brush, but the point is, they are putting out some kind of audible signal to let the bears know they are in the area and are coming through to prevent a surprised bear’s “fight” response.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s a different kind of encounter. It could be something that just starts off as a curious black bear investigating what you are, or it could be a bear with cubs in tow. Either way, during a bear encounter, try to remain calm, speak calmly to the bear and slowly wave your arms so that the bear can identify you as a human instead of prey. Often times, the bear will move on.
Whatever the situation, there are two simple rules for an encounter that leads to physical contact.
Grizzly: If wearing a pack, leave it on and try to lay on your stomach and cover the back of your neck with your hands and play dead. Spread your legs so the bear can’t easily roll you over. In most cases, once the grizzly no longer sees you as a threat, they will move on. However, if it is a hungry bear that sees you as prey, and they continue to attack, you may have to fight back with everything you have.
Once the bear is gone, get out of there, and seek medical attention.
I want to mention a video that circulated on the inter-webs a couple years ago that relates to this. A guy was attacked by a female grizzly with a couple of cubs. He played dead and survived the attack. Once the bear was gone, and he moved out of the area to seek help, the grizzly came back, followed him, and attacked him again. He endured another attack and then escaped again. When he finally made it to his vehicle, he made a quick video describing the event and showing the damage the bear did to him before driving away to get medical attention. The point of adding this little story is simply to remind you that mother nature and Mr. Murphy always get a say. Don’t rule out any outcome from the realm of possibility.
The opposite advice for physical contact is given for black bears. Stand your ground and fight! Yes, the same rules for initial contact still apply in terms of trying to show the bear that you aren’t prey but, black bears are different creatures, and the tactics used for a physical grizzly encounter won’t serve you well during actual contact with a black bear. If you’re attacked, fight from the beginning!
Next, let’s turn our attention to a couple of other large land animals in North America. Bison and moose. The best advice is to simply keep your distance and give these mammoth creatures some space. You certainly don’t want to crowd these animals.
As we scale down in size, the next critters on our list are mountain lions, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, wild hogs, and wild dogs.
Over the last 20 years, mountain lion encounters have become more common in the U.S. Two things that stand out as causes of this are people expanding into the mountain lion’s habitat more and a significant drop in the number of hunters. Whatever the cause, it’s simply more common these days, and it is something that we need to be aware of. If you encounter a mountain lion in the wild, how should you react?
First, maintain eye contact and do not turn your back to them. Mountain lions are predators, so stand your ground, don’t run. Their prey runs from them, so you running will likely trigger their predator instinct to chase and kill. Instead, make loud noises and wave your arms to make yourself look as big as possible. Pick up a branch and wave it around, use your jacket to wave around, anything that makes you look bigger will be in your favor. If you’re attacked, fight back and protect your neck as much as possible. Most large cats typically go for the neck, the area to quickly immobilize and kill their prey.
Bobcats attacks aren’t something we hear much about. They are smaller cats and typically don’t bother humans. However, I can recall a local man in my hometown in NE Oklahoma being attacked when he was turkey hunting. This particular person was sitting behind a tree working a turkey call when all of a sudden, a large bobcat pounced on him, thinking he was a turkey.
He was pretty scratched up during the encounter and vowed to never turkey hunt again. Pound for pound, bobcats are very powerful, and large ones have no problem attacking deer and dragging the carcasses to their hiding spot for later consumption. They are not a huge threat to people, but obviously, encounters can happen. The best advice is to give them their space and let them be on their way.
Wolves and Coyotes are not known to attack humans often, but there are recorded events of it happening. A good friend of mine who I served with oversees was taking a stroll through the woods with his walking stick one day, and a lone coyote attacked him. He didn’t have a firearm with him, so his only option for defense was to use his walking stick as a weapon. He ended up having to beat the coyote to death with his walking stick and now has that coyote mounted next to his fireplace (pretty damn cool if you ask me).
Obviously, our best bet is to keep our eyes and ears open to try and avoid and encounter, but if that’s not possible, I’d be looking for a tree or a tall outcrop of rocks I could shimmy up to get myself out of reach. If a firearm is available, do what you need to do after you’ve reached an elevated and safe position where they can’t reach you. What if you are caught out in the open where there aren’t any trees? You can try running, but let’s be honest unless there is a safe destination close by, you probably aren’t going get away by running from dogs. Stand your ground, kick, grab a stick, a rock, anything you can to be a force multiplier that might give you an edge.
Wild feral dogs can be very unpredictable. I have encountered them in small packs in the woods when I was hunting. I heard them moving through the woods in my direction. I simply stopped, stayed still and quiet, and they didn’t even notice me. I’m definitely a live and let live kind of guy, and simply doing my best to avoid contact was successful. Had it not been, I would have followed the guidelines above and claimed a tree to get out of harm’s way.
Wild Hogs are certainly an ever-increasing danger across a lot of America. Wild hogs have razor-sharp tusks and have cut many men to ribbons. Thankfully, the same rules that we apply to the canines listed above will work just as well for wild hogs. One other thing I want to mention about wild hogs is that we can sometimes tell if they are present in the area by simply paying attention to things around us. Are there any hog wallows in the area? Tracks? Wild hogs will sometimes rub against trees anywhere from knee to waist high (depending on how tall the hog is), leaving what looks like a dirt-colored bare spot on the tree trunk. If you see this, it should at least clue you in to the fact that they may be roaming the area.
What can I say about snakes? Typically, most snakes don’t want anything to do with you and will simply slither away, given the opportunity. In the wild, I’ve had close encounters with Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Pigmy Rattlers, and even the deadly Fer-de-Lance viper while down in Central America (8 times to be exact) and none of them were out to get me. Sure, if I’d stepped on any of them or startled them at close range, I’m sure they may have bitten me but, it wouldn’t have been due to them just looking to attack a human.
On the other hand, the one exception in my experience has been the Cottonmouth. No, I’m not a herpetologist or wildlife biologist, but…I have had many encounters with cottonmouths throughout my life, and I’ll be damned if every one of them wasn’t cantankerous and super aggressive even when I tried to give them a wide berth and leave them alone. I’ve even had them chase me on multiple occasions. Bottom line, keep your eyes open, move slow, and pay attention to your surroundings. If you see a snake, just give it space and leave it alone, and you’ll likely be fine.
If you get bitten, hope that it was a dry bite but, get to the hospital as soon as possible. Snake bite venom extractor kits don’t work. In fact, they actually cause more tissue damage to the area. Don’t put a tourniquet on (unless you are in a country like Australia where it is recommended due to the toxicity levels of some of the venom found there). Simply try to remain calm and seek medical attention.
The Smaller Things
I could go on and on about all the wildlife that “could” attack you, but, more often than not, they simply want to be left alone and will return the favor. However, before closing out, I do want to mention some critters that I feel are often left out of these types of discussions because of their size.
Ticks & mosquitos: We can do a lot of preventative mitigation if we simply take a little time before heading into the outdoors. Deet and permethrin are great at repelling ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos.
Mosquitos kill more people every year than any other animal on the planet. They can carry viruses like malaria and zika, but even without a virus, they can simply be maddening. Be proactive in preventatives, and you can certainly mitigate bites.
When I was a kid, it wasn’t really a big deal to come in from the woods covered in ticks after a day of playing, but now, there are a lot more cases of tick fever, Lyme disease, and variations that can even cause people to become allergic to red meat. Ticks have to be taken seriously and should be removed immediately. Research has shown that if the tick is found and removed within 18 to 24 hours, the odds of you contracting a disease are significantly reduced, so be sure to do a tick check every day when you are in the field.
Lastly, I’ll mention bees, hornets, and wasps. Luckily, we can often see or even hear these insects before we have a stinging encounter. The exception to that being maybe if you were a mower or tractor and ran over a ground nest. Otherwise, these little critters are pretty avoidable if we are paying attention to our surroundings. However, if you are allergic to any of these, you should always carry an epi-pen to self-administer in the event of an incident. I’m not allergic, but I know there are a lot of people who are so, I carry chewable children’s Benadryl in my med kits. I can use it to treat small children or even adults by simply upping the dosage. I personally carry it because a small, inexpensive tablet in my kit may literally save the life of another human. Absolutely worth carrying in my kit, and I’d recommend you do the same.
Whether you spend time in the remote wilderness or simply enjoy sitting on the local park bench, wildlife is all around us. My advice is simply to pay attention to your surroundings, enjoy the beauty we find in nature, and be respectful of the wildlife you encounter. Do that, and you’ll rarely have problems.