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Outdoorsman: Wild Animal Encounters

August 1, 2002
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Every year, visitors to the backcountry are injured by wild animals that are, for one reason or another, put in a situation that leads to dangerously close contact with humans. Most of the time, it isn’t the animal that chooses to have such close contact.

There are some basic rules we can follow to help make our experiences with wild animals less stressful for them and less dangerous for us. The first rule is to check your warm/fuzzy feelings at the door, because these aren’t Disney characters. They’re wild animals that deserve the space to live without feeling menaced by humans.

Baby Animals
From time to time, young animals, such as fawns, will be left alone temporarily by their mothers. Do not intervene, because it will only cause problems. If you approach closely or handle a young animal, a lingering human scent may lead to total abandonment by the mother.

If the mother catches you messing with her young, she may perceive you as a threat and attack you.

Never, ever get between a mother and her baby.

Small Animals
Don’t feed them, even if they come into camp looking hungry. It’s a strong temptation to feed seemingly friendly wildlife, but that accomplishes two negative ends. It makes them dependent upon human food, and it encourages them to hang around a human camp, both of which can be dangerous for them.

Don’t try to touch. A startled animal may scratch or bite you, which can transmit dangerous diseases.

Big Animals
The Number One Rule for all wildlife is to keep your distance.

The best thing you can do if you want close-up photos is to buy a telephoto (200 mm to 400 mm) lens, so you don’t have to crowd the animal.

Do not shout, wave or throw objects to get the animal to “look” at the camera.

Bears
Food and surprise encounters are the two biggest problems between humans and bears when in bear country. Black bears are opportunistic foragers, always looking for a free meal, so it is important to keep a clean camp. The grizzly bear is a powerful predator, capable of outrunning a horse. Keep in mind that when you are in grizzly country, you are now just part of the food chain. Mother bears are very protective of their cubs, and will not hesitate to charge intruders.

Don’t leave food in your vehicle. Bears can and will break into vehicles if they see or smell food.

In the backcountry, hang food high in a tree. Sleep at least 100 feet from where you hang the food, cook and eat. Toiletries such as toothpaste, soap and shampoo may also attract bears, so store them as you would food.

Don’t sleep in the same clothes you wore while cooking and eating. Hang that clothing in plastic bags away from camp.

At campsites without bear-proof garbage cans, treat garbage and leftovers the same as food. When leaving camp, pack out all food scraps. Place food and garbage in tightly sealed plastic bags. Double-bag everything to prevent the odor from escaping.

Wash dishes immediately. Clean up any spilled food.

If a bear comes into camp, bang pots and pans together to make noise. After the bear leaves, check around to find and eliminate food or garbage that attracted the bear.

If a bear gets into your food, you are responsible for cleaning up the mess and packing out all debris. Report the incident to the nearest ranger.

Don’t confront a bear to protect your property or food. In the case of repeated encounters, leave the area, with or without your stuff.

Hike in groups and in the open when possible. Never hike at night. Wear a bear bell or make noise when visibility is limited, so bears know you’re coming.

If you meet a bear on the trail, don’t run. Running may trigger an attack. If the bear is unaware of you, detour away. If the bear is aware of you but has not acted aggressively, wave your arms overhead to make yourself look as large as possible, speak in a firm voice, and slowly back away.

Never get between a mother bear and her cubs, or any bear and carrion it may have been feeding on.

Grizzly bears, however, are not impressed by loud noise or your size. Avoidance is key. If you are attacked by a grizzly, most experts agree that your best defense is to assume a fetal position, protect your stomach and face, and play dead.

Bison
An adult bull bison can grow to be 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2000 pounds. Bison may appear big and slow, but they can run up to 30 miles per hour. In Yellowstone National Park, visitors are gored every year because they get too close while trying to take photos. Keep your distance, and don’t press your luck just to take a picture.

Cougar
Cougars are large animals, often over 100 pounds, and they are potentially dangerous, especially to children. To prevent an encounter when in cougar country:

Hike in groups, rather than alone.

Make noise on the trail to avoid surprising a cougar.

Carry a sturdy walking stick that could be used to fend off an animal.

Keep children under close control.

Be alert, especially in dense cover and when sitting, crouching or lying down. Watch for tracks and other animal signs.

Avoid dead animals (carrion) that cougar may feed on.

Reduce odors. Store food and garbage in double plastic bags.

Maintain a clean camp.

Pets attract cougars. Don’t leave a pet tied up in camp.

If you meet a cougar:

Stop, stand upright and don’t run.

Face the animal and talk to it calmly and slowly back away. Leave the cougar an escape route.

Try to appear larger. Wave your arms, raise your jacket over your head, and stay higher than the animal.

Most cougars will retreat. If the cougar becomes aggressive, shout, wave your arms and throw things at the animal. Stay on your feet. Don’t turn your back or take your eyes off the cougar. Try to convince the animal that you are a danger to it.

Deer and Elk
These animals are generally unapproachable, because they flee at the first hint of human presence. However, when the animal is cornered or protecting its young, it may become aggressive. Keep your distance. Don’t harass or follow the animals closely.

Moose
Mature bulls weigh more than 1000 pounds. Their size and demeanor may fool you into thinking they are slow, but they are very fast on their feet, and they’ll come at you like a runaway locomotive. Calves are born in the spring and remain with their mothers for a year. A cow will aggressively protect her young from any perceived threat.

Observe only from a distance.
While hiking in moose country, keep a watchful eye, so you spot them well in advance.
If you see a moose, alter your route away from the moose.

Don’t get between a cow and her calf.

Wolves
It’s rare to see a wolf in the wild, but with the government’s reintroduction program, a confrontation could occur. According to the National Park Service, however, no verifiable recorded attack on a human by a wolf has occurred in the United States.

Avoid eye contact.

Face the animal, but don’t smile or bare your teeth, it may be taken as a sign of aggression on your part.

Slowly back away.

Don’t run. Running may trigger an attack.

Respect

As we said before, almost every injury to a human caused by a wild animal was due to contact that was too close, and it’s almost never the animal that moved toward the human. One overriding rule of thumb we can leave you with when viewing wildlife is that if your presence causes an animal’s behavior to change, you are too close.

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