Published March 21, 2018
It’s a situation you never want to find yourself in. You’re on vacation, peacefully enjoying the planet’s natural wonders and then – out of nowhere – a wild creature attacks.
While these encounters are usually very rare, Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman at Rocky Mountain National Park, say it's because people aren't aware of their surroundings or don't use common sense.
"Any wildlife can be unpredictable," she said. "Sometimes you see a visitor who sees an animal and think, 'they’re close to the road, I'll just get out and a take a picture.' This isn’t a zoo where it is fenced off."
Every animal responds differently to human interaction, but a general rule of thumb for any wildlife encounter is be prepared and look for signs.
"If the animal is reacting to you, you’re too close. All wildlife will give you a sign. Some species will put their ears back. Some will scrape their paws. Some will give verbal cues," said Patterson.
In order to help you, we’ve come up with a list of tips for surviving all kinds of animal encounters, from bison to sharks.
Even with this list handy, remember that it is illegal to approach wildlife at the national parks and no matter how prepared you are, expect the unexpected.
North America’s recent rash of bear attacks should be inspiration enough to want to know how to survive a mauling. At least six people in five states have been mauled by black and brown bears recently. There was the Alaskan hunter who was attacked on Saturday, the hikers in Yellowstone National Park who were attacked by a grizzly last Thursday and 12-year-old Abigail Wetherell who was mauled by a black bear on the very same day, while out on an evening jog in northern Michigan.
"These are two species that you shouldn’t never run from: Black bear or mountain lion," said Patterson. "You should make yourself big, as much as you can. Whether it’s taking your jacket and putting it over your head, or picking up sticks or just waving your arms, you need to fight back."
Here’s a list of bear attack survival tips from Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources:
1.) If you see a bear that is far away or doesn't see you turn around and go back, or circle far around. Don't disturb it.
2.) If you see a bear that is close or it does see you STAY CALM. Attacks are rare. Bears may approach or stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you. These are curious, not aggressive, bears. BE HUMAN. Stand tall, wave your arms, and speak in a loud and low voice. DO NOT RUN! Stand your ground or back away slowly and diagonally. If the bear follows, STOP.
3.) If a bear is charging almost all charges are "bluff charges". DO NOT RUN! Olympic sprinters cannot outrun a bear and running may trigger an instinctive reaction to "chase". Do not try to climb a tree unless it is literally right next to you and you can quickly get at least 30 feet up. STAND YOUR GROUND. Wave your arms and speak in a loud low voice. Many times charging bears have come within a few feet of a person and then veered off at the last second.
4.) If a bear approaches your campsite aggressively chase it away. Make noise with pots and pans, throw rocks, and if needed, hit the bear. Do not let the bear get any food.
5.) If you have surprised a bear and are contacted or attacked and making noise or struggling has not discouraged an attack, play dead. Curl up in a ball with your hands laced behind your neck. The fetal position protects your vital organs. Lie still and be silent. Surprised bears usually stop attacking once you are no longer a threat (i.e. "dead").
6.) If you have been stalked by a bear, a bear is approaching your campsite, or an attack is continuing long after you have ceased struggling, fight back! Predatory bears are often young bears that can be successfully intimidated or chased away. Use a stick, rocks or your hands and feet.
Migrating elk are known to take over towns, especially this time of year. For example, Estes Park, a popular resort town in the Rocky Mountains hosts nearly 2,000 elk for the summer months, and much of the year. With a population of only 5,858 inhabitants, the town is literally overrun by elk.
Rocky Mountain National Park also has a large population of elk. Patterson said the dangerous times are in the spring, when they're protective of their calves, and the fall mating season, known as the rut. "Sometimes the bulls can be very aggressive," she said. "During the rut, elk are in big groups. You want to make sure you’re not in between the aggressive bull elk and the focus of his attention."
That's why the park takes preventative measures such as closing meadows and sending out teams of volunteers to patrol.
Here are some tips from The Payson Roundup, a small paper that covers Rim Country in central Arizona, an area that has had its fair share of elk invasions.
1.) Always keep a safe distance and if driving, stay in your car.
2.) Never approach a baby calf; they are not abandoned even if the cow is not in sight. The cow is close by or very likely has gone to water and will return. The maternal instinct could produce an aggressive behavior if something might come between her and her calf, so play it safe.
3.) Elks travel in the reduced light of early morning or late afternoon -- so if you want to avoid an elk, don’t go out during dawn or dusk.
Bison are the largest indigenous land mammal in North America. The bulls can often weigh as much as one ton. Not only are they huge, bison are fast. They can quickly accelerate to speeds up to 35 mph. So if they look majestic and docile out on that plain, just remember bison are beasts and they are much faster than you.
If you encounter a bison, here are some tips from Canada’s National Park Service:
1.) If you encounter bison along the roadway, drive slowly and they will eventually move. Do not honk, become impatient or proceed too quickly. Bison attacks on vehicles are rare, but can happen. Bison may spook if you get out of your vehicle. Therefore, remain inside or stay very close.
2.) If you are on foot or horseback: Never startle bison. Always let them know you are there. Never try to chase or scare bison away. It is best to just cautiously walk away. Always try to stay a minimum of 100 meters (approximately the size of a football field) from the bison.
3.) Please take extra caution as bison may be more aggressive: During the rutting season (mid July-mid August) as bulls can become more aggressive during this time. After bison cows have calved. Moms may be a little over-protective during this time. When cycling near bison, as cyclists often startle unknowing herds. When hiking with pets. Dogs may provoke a bison attack and should be kept on a leash. On hot spring days when bison have heavy winter coats.
4.) Use extreme caution if they display any of the following signs: Shaking the head. Pawing. Short charges or running toward you. Loud snorting. Raising the tail.
Attacks from mountain lions are very rare, Patterson said, and they’re going to prey on elk and deer--not humans.
But she said the danger arises when people hike alone or families with children let the kids run ahead and make noises.
"If a child is running along a trail they can mimic prey," she said. This is why they tell visitors to '"make like a sandwich" when walking along the trails.
"Families and adults should think like a sandwich and the parents should be like a piece of bread and the children should be the filling. Have an adult should be leading the pack and should be in the back."
Here is a list of tips for a mountain lion encounter from the conservation advocacy group, The Cougar Fund:
1.) Be especially alert when recreating at dawn or dusk, which are peak times for cougar activity.
2.) Consider recreating with others. When in groups, you are less likely to surprise a lion. If alone, consider carrying bear spray or attaching a bell to yourself or your backpack. Tell a friend where you are going and when you plan to return. In general cougars are shy and will rarely approach noise or other human activities.
3.) Supervise children and pets. Keep them close to you. Teach children about cougars and how to recreate responsibly. Instruct them about how to behave in the event of an encounter.
4.) If you come into contact with a cougar that does not run away, stay calm, stand your ground and don't back down! Back away slowly if possible and safe to do so. Pick up children, but DO NOT BEND DOWN, TURN YOUR BACK, OR RUN. Running triggers an innate predatory response in cougars which could lead to an attack.
5.) Raise your voice and speak firmly. Raise your arms to make yourself look larger, clap your hands, and throw something you might have in your hands, like a water bottle. Again, do not bend over to pick up a stone off the ground. This action may trigger a pounce response in a cougar.
6.) If in the very unusual event that a lion attacks you, fight back. People have successfully fought off lions with rocks and sticks. Try to remain standing and get up if you fall to the ground.
7.) If you believe an encounter to be a valid public safety concern, contact your state game agency and any local wildlife organizations.
While shark sightings are on the rise, shark attacks are still relatively rare. Last year only seven people were killed in shark attacks. Although, in 2011, the number of shark-related deaths was 13. On the off chance you come face to face with Jaws, you should be prepared.
Here are some shark encounter survival tips from Discovery’s Alexander Davies:
1.) Don’t panic. If you find yourself face to face with a shark, you’re going to need your wits about you to get away with your life. So keep calm; remember that while sharks are deadly animals, they’re not invincible. Thrashing and flailing is more likely to gain its attention than to drive it away.
2.) Play dead. If you see a shark approaching, this is a last ditch effort to stave off an attack. A shark is more likely to go after a lively target than an immobile one. But once Jaws goes in for the kill, it’s time to fight — he’ll be as happy to eat you dead as alive. From here on out, you’ll have to fight if you want to survive.
3.) Fight back. Once a shark takes hold, the only way you’re getting out alive is to prove that it’s not worth the effort to eat you — because you’re going to cause it pain. Look for a weapon: You’ll probably have to improvise. But any blunt object — a camera, nearby floating wood — will make you a more formidable opponent. Often repeated advice has it that a good punch to a shark’s snout will send it packing. In fact, the nose is just one of several weak points to aim for. A shark’s head is mostly cartilage, so the gills and eyes are also vulnerable.
4.) Fight smart. Unless you’re Rocky Balboa, you’re not going to knock out a shark with a single punch. Not only will a huge swing slow down in the water due to drag, it’s unlikely to hit a rapidly moving target. Stick with short, direct jabs, so you increase your chances of landing a few in quick succession.
5.) Play defense. Open water, where a shark can come at you from any angle, is the worst position place you can be. Get anything you can to back up against, ideally a reef or a jetty. If there are two of you, line up back to back, so you’ll always have eyes on an approaching attack. Don’t worry about limiting your escape routes- you won’t out swim a shark, better to improve your chances of sending him away.
6.) Call for backup. Call out to nearby boats, swimmers and anyone on shore for help. Even if they can’t reach you right away, they’ll know you’re in trouble, and will be there to help if you suffer some injuries but escape the worst fate. Who knows, maybe a group of sympathetic dolphins will help you out – they’re fierce animals in their own right.
7.) Fight to the end. Giving up won’t make a shark less interested in eating you, so fight as long as you can. If the animal has a hold on you, he’s unlikely to let go. You have to show him you’re not worth the effort to eat.
While stingray attacks are not usually deadly, they are painful and warrant close medical attention. With a recent stingray invasion along the Alabama coast, now is an important time to learn about the barb-tailed sea creature. The animals often bury themselves in shallow water, so even if you are just wading in the ocean, you are still at risk of being stung.
Here are some tips from Jake Howard, a lifeguard at Seal Beach, Calif. on how to handle a stingray encounter:
1.) Always shuffle your feet when walking out to the surf, sting rays are shy and skitish creatures and will generally flutter away at the first sign of danger. The sting is a self-defense mechanism when they get stepped on or threatened. The Sting Ray Shuffle is your first line of defense.
2.) If you do feel something soft and squishy under your foot step off of it as quick as possible. I stepped on a sting ray last weekend, but got off it in time that it didn't get me...Step lightly in other words.
3.) In the case that you do get stung come to the beach as quick as possible, don't panic because it will only increase your circulation, thus aiding in the movement of the toxin through your body. Also you want to try and limit anything that may bring on symptoms of shock.
4.) Go home, or to the nearest lifeguard or fire station to treat it. The wound can vary in pain. I've had a woman compare it to child birth and seen full-on tattooed gang bangers cry like little sissys, conversly I've seen little girls walk away with relatively little discomfort. Either way it's not going to be fun. Pretty much the only real thing you can do for the pain is soak the sting in hot water, as hot as you can stand, but don't go burnin' yourself. You can also take Advil or something, but no asprin. Asprin thins the blood and allows the toxin to travel easier.
5.) Soak the foot until it feels significantly better. The pain probably won't go completely away, but it should feel dramatically better. A little swelling is normal. Be sure to clean the wound as best as possible. If it looks like the sting ray barb is still in your foot see a doctor for treatment. Actually if anything weird at all goes on go see a doctor.