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How to stay safe during encounters with wild animals

Wild animal attacks are rare but dangerous encounters do happen, especially when humans ignore or are unaware of wildlife-viewing rules and etiquette. Picture: REUTERS/Alexandra Winkler

Wild animal attacks are rare but dangerous encounters do happen, especially when humans ignore or are unaware of wildlife-viewing rules and etiquette. Picture: REUTERS/Alexandra Winkler

Published Jun 24, 2022

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By Andrea Sachs

Wild animal attacks are rare, but dangerous encounters do happen, especially when humans ignore or are unaware of wildlife-viewing rules and etiquette.

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"Domestic animals account for most animal attacks in the US, but if we are just talking about wildlife, snakes and rodents (rats, squirrels and so on) make up the vast majority," Mark Hofberg, a campaigns officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a DC-based non-profit, wrote.

"The high-profile attacks from bears, cougars and other large mammals that you hear on the news are much rarer but have a higher chance of being dangerous, so it pays to be prepared."

We will undoubtedly bump into animals in their natural habitats, a prospect that delights one group more than the other.

"Wild animals want to be left to themselves," said Cameron Harsh, programmes director in the US office of World Animal Protection, an international non-profit group. "They don't want to interact with humanity."

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To ensure a peaceable kingdom, we asked wildlife specialists in government agencies and non-profit organisations for advice on how to keep all creatures – two-, four- and no-legged, with or without a tail, most with teeth – safe in the wild. Here are their guidelines:

Familiarise yourself with the fauna in the park or region you plan to visit

Learn to identify the residents and note their schedules.

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You can find the information on park websites (for national parks, search under the "Nature" or "Safety" headings) and at visitor centres and tourism offices.

Trailheads typically feature bulletin boards that highlight the wildlife and share best hiking practices. Wildlife management agencies are also valuable resources.

Be extra vigilant during big annual events

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During calving and mating seasons, for example, animals might behave more aggressively.

Give animals lots of space

Although there is no official distancing figure, experts, including those at many national parks, recommend staying at least 75 feet (about 22m) from non-predatory creatures and 300 feet from predators. David Lamfrom, the vice-president of regional programmes at NPCA, recommends a 50-foot buffer around elephant seals and sea lions, whose males are territorial, and at least six feet between you and a venomous snake.

"If you're close enough to take a selfie," said Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, the senior managing director for NPCA's conservation programmes, "you're too close." Speaking of photography: Invest in a telephoto lens.

Always stick to designated trails and viewing platforms.

Avoid surprising the wildlife

"Be predictable," said Lamfrom, adding that animals such as bears and moose are typically wise to the heavily peopled routes.

Leave no trace of food behind

Clean up all your garbage and sweep up any crumbs. If you are camping, lock your edibles in a bear-proof container.

"In most cases, wildlife wants to avoid you, but if you are leaving the aluminium foil out with burger drippings from your cookout last night, you are making it hard for them to ignore you," Hofberg said.

Never leave a backpack containing food lying around, even for the time it takes to snap a photo of a vista or to tie your shoe.

Be mindful of odours that might smell like a medicine cabinet to you but a Las Vegas buffet to a wild animal.

For instance, Melton recommends campers do not bring toothpaste inside their tent or put deodorant on before lights-out. Also, don't sleep in your hiking clothes, especially if you grilled burgers in them.

Take preventive measures

In tall marsh grass or wetlands, wear knee-high boots to protect your legs from snakes.

Before stepping over a log, check the other side for snakes waiting for unsuspecting prey.

In a dangerously close encounter, follow the proper course of action

This could vary by species. "In general, for animals that are predators, you don't want to act like prey," Hofberg said.

"So don't turn your back, and don't run away. Make yourself large, and if you are with others, gather together."

Show respect

It should go without saying. Never feed, taunt or harass the animals.

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