Part of what makes a ski diva a Ski Diva is our love of the outdoors. Now that the weather’s warm, you can often find us hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing — doing all sorts of things to stay active and have fun while we wait for the snow to fly.
It’s precisely this that brings us into close proximity with wildlife: Moose, bear, mountain lions, coyotes, snakes, and more. Face it, we’re in their territory. And though it’s cool to see animals up close, it’s important to remember that these are not the happy, friendly creatures you’ll find in a Disney animation. Animals have their own rules for behavior, and they don’t necessarily coincide with ours. That said, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea: lethal attacks by wildlife are extremely rare. (To put it in perspective, see the infographic at the end of this piece. And keep in mind that according to the Center for Disease Control, motor vehicles account for 33,000 deaths per year.) However, animals are defensive of their homes, and are much more likely to attack if they feel threatened.
Nonetheless, every year you hear about people who are injured by animals thanks to their own stupid actions, such as trying to take photos with bison in Yellowstone. According to the CDC, bison injured five people in the park last summer. Of those five, three were trying to take photos within 3-6 feet of the bison, two turned their backs on the bison while taking photos, and one just outright admitted he was taking a selfie.
I have a long-standing rule called the Don’t Be An Idiot Rule. It’s pretty simple: if there’s something for which you think someone you respect would say, ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ then just don’t do it. And taking a close-up photo of a bison — or any other wild animal, for that matter — certainly fills the bill.
But I digress. My purpose here is to provide some usable advice about what to do if you see a wild animal while you’re enjoying the Great Outdoors. The National Park Service has long recommended that people stay 75 feet away from wild animals that aren’t bears or wolves (300 feet for those). This is certainly valuable to know. But here are some other things you should keep in mind, in case you see one of our wild friends:
I’ve only seen a few of these here in Vermont, but believe me, these guys are BIG. As in big-as-my-Subaru big. Moose are among the most dangerous, regularly encountered animals in the world. And though they prefer to leave humans alone, they’re known to be aggressive if they believe they’re being threatened. Cows with calves are particularly protective, especially in early summer when their young are most vulnerable. In the fall, bull moose often act more aggressively as they compete with other males for breeding opportunities. But no matter what the season, the best strategy is to avoid a confrontational situation in the first place.
So what are the signs of aggressive moose behavior? Walking in your direction, stomping its feet, peeling its ears back, grunting, or throwing its head back and forth. If a moose does any of these things, the people at Glacier National Park recommend the following.
Back away with your palms facing the moose;
Speak softly and reassuringly, like you would to a little child;
If the moose charges, get behind a large tree or rock in order to separate your body from the moose. Most moose charges, like grizzly bear charges, are bluffs;
If the moose attacks you, feign death by curling up in a little ball. Protect your head and neck with your arms. If you are wearing a backpack, your pack can help protect your back.
Most attacks by black bears are defensive reactions to a person who is very close, which is an easy situation to avoid. It helps to be on the lookout for active bear signs, such such as fresh tracks or fresh bear scat. If possible, avoid areas such as berry patches and stream banks where bears may be feeding or drinking. Hiking in midday will also reduce the chance of encountering a bear, as they are less active at that time. It also helps to make your presence known by making noise. This will allow them to walk away from the noise to avoid an encounter. And be careful with food, which can act as a bear-magnet. If you’re camping, don’t place your tent near hanging food or a car where food is stored.
If you happen to spot a bear in the distance, simply back away, at least a few hundred yards, and find another route. If another route isn’t available, wait 20 to 30 minutes before heading back down the trail. And while going back down the trail, be sure to make noise to announce your presence. If you see a bear on the trail, make yourself as big as possible and in a stern voice tell it to go away. If the bear continues to come at you, use bear spray when he’s about 20-30 feet away to deter it from coming any closer.
Research has shown that mountain lions go out of their way to avoid other mountain lions and people. They mostly rely on wariness as their first defense and resort to fighting only when necessary to defend a territory or a litter of kittens. The best way to ensure that both you and the lion leave safely is for you to back away slowly while continuing to look as big and intimidating as possible, leaving the lion avenues of escape.
Coyotes are naturally timid and will usually run away when they encounter a human. If they linger or approach, make yourself as big and as loud as possible to scare them away. Do not run or turn your back. Waving your arms, clapping your hands, or shouting in an authoritative voice are all good. It can also be helpful to carry a noisemaker, squirt gun or pepper spray.
Snakes only strike when they feel like they’re being threatened. As with the other animals, the best way to avoid trouble is to steer clear of them whenever possible. This includes not walking through heavy brush, and never reaching into a dark hole or other place you can’t see — if you must probe, use a tool (this is good advice to protect you from spiders, scorpions, and other burrowing animals too). And since almost all snake strikes are on lower extremities, it’s also a good idea to wear high boots and long pants. Also, if you’re camping, avoid sleeping near a log or large branch, in tall grass, or next to rocky areas. And make sure to zip up your tent tight.
So which animals are most likely to kill humans in the US? The Washington Post published this handy-dandy graphic last year on human fatalities by wildlife between 2001 and 2013, with info provided by the CDC:
The takeaway from this? Wear bug spray.
Be careful out there, friends. And remember, don’t be an idiot.