As we get deeper into summer, many of us are clamoring to get outside and soak up the sun in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, that also means the increased potential of encountering the more dangerous elements of nature—namely, wild animals. While we’re backpacking through the woods or setting up camping tents, there’s always a chance of running into bears, coyotes, or other animals that could put us in harm’s way. So how should we react if we find ourselves face to face with one of them?
Bears may look adorable, but they’re vicious beasts in nature when the mood strikes them. If you come across one in while camping or hiking, first try to figure out what kind of bear you’re dealing with—specifically, whether it’s a black bear or a grizzly bear because the course of action depends on this. Black bears (which can be black, brown, or even blue-ish) are smaller than grizzlies; grizzlies also have longer claws and are usually dark brown.
It may seem like it’s going against your instincts, but don’t try to run away or climb a tree for safety. Bears are faster than you and while grizzlies are much more adept climbers than black bears, the latter have been known to climb, too. Instead, back away slowly while avoiding direct eye contact and speak in a calm voice to emphasize you’re not a threat.
If the bear attacks, this is where the type of bear becomes important. If it’s a grizzly bear, it’s best to play dead because the bear will lose interest and be less likely to continue fighting. Black bears tend to be less aggressive, so you have a better chance of scaring them off by defending yourself. You can also purchase bear pepper spray before embarking on a forest journey to use in emergency situations.
Summer is a snake’s favorite season; they enjoy being in the heat. Luckily, they tend to shy away from us because we’re much bigger and therefore scarier to them. They’re fleers, not fighters, so an attack is rare, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Snakes make it easy to tell when they’re feeling threatened—their heads raise and they hiss or their tales rattle if they’re rattlesnakes. In that case, stay where you are so that the snake feels free to escape. Don’t throw anything at it in an attempt to kill it first—if by any chance you miss, snakes move quickly and strike fiercely.
Also known as cougars, these big cats don’t generally attack humans because they don’t think of us as prey. However, happening upon their territory or startling them is a surefire way to get their defenses up. The best thing to do is to demonstrate that you’re not a threat to their safety. Maintain a calm but firm voice and stay where you are—there’s no way you’re going to outrun a mountain lion. Unlike facing a bear, it’s in your best interest to make eye contact with a cougar and stand authoritatively.
If the cat shows aggression, that’s when it’s time to try scaring it off. Throw rocks, wave big sticks, clap your hands, and make loud noises to show you can be a threat, too. Try to make yourself appear as big as possible to scare it off. Whatever you do, don’t turn your back on cougars. That’s just asking to be chased.
Coyotes don’t often attack people, but it happens more with habituation, which is when city growth and development gets too close to wildlife areas and animals become familiar with humans and less scared of them. They’re usually too afraid to approach or challenge us, but if they get used to frequent human contact, coyotes are more likely to make risky moves. If that becomes the case, it’s best to make yourself as scary as possible to intimidate it into running away. Throw things, wave your hands high, shout or yell at it, and make yourself the more threatening aggressor.
It’s extremely rare that a healthy wolf will seek out humans. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the first time a healthy wolf attacked and killed someone in North America was 2006. More often than not, they stay away unless extreme hunger or a disease like rabies makes them more aggressive and willing to take chances.
In fact, wolves attacking humans happens so rarely that it’s hard to find information on what to do in that specific situation. But the proper action to take with menacing wolves is most likely similar to how you’d respond to a dangerous dog. That is, you should keep your eyes cast downward (eye contact is seen as challenging) and keep your mouth closed, since showing teeth is a sign of aggression to members of the dog family, too. Running also prompts them to catch you, so stay still and use a soft tone when you speak.
If the wolf bites, try not to yank away—if you’ve ever played tug-of-war with a dog, you know what the outcome will be. (They tug harder.) Instead, try to make it gag or do something to break its clamped jaw.
Attacks from these animals are rare, but they become more likely when they interact with humans, such as when people leave food out for them or put property too close to their territories. Despite what Disney and various other cartoons would have us believe, they’re not cute and cuddly animals and we should do our best to stay away from them, not lure them closer with treats. But should the occasion arise, at least now we know what to do—don’t panic, don’t provoke an attack, and whatever you do, don’t run!