FIGHT OR FLIGHT Part One: Animal Behavior

OK, I’M IN THE WILDERNESS, NOW WHAT DO I DO?  . . .  Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh My!

Ok, no lions and tigers and no Auntie Em either.  But definitely time to explore the practicalities and safety issues of wildlife encounters. Remembering that all wildlife are indeed wild and are extremely dangerous when provoked. So let’s learn how  “not to provoke”.  Also, the more you know and understand equales empowerment, and the calmer and more assured and safer you will be while on trail.

Black Bear. You’re hiking an area that has a lot of switchbacks, blind corners and you’re in bear country. We don’t need to startle mama bear with her cubs, so softly talk or sing, or pray out loud as you near those blind corners. Occasionally check the ground ahead of you for tracks or scat to alert you to its presence.  Their tracks look like bare people feet (at least to me) and their scat is significant and full of berries or fur. If you see garbage or saran wrap in the scat, you have a habituated bear in the area. Time to reconsider your hike. A habituated bear associates humans with food, making them uncharacteristically aggressive and eventually a dead animal by our euthanizng hands. Not to mention at minimum, a rattled you.

bear 3 DSCF2191

Black Bear by Marybeth Haydon

Well, lookie there, a black bear. What to do?  Has the bear seen you? If not, don’t announce yourself and simply detour or turn back. Calmly.  It has seen you? Stop where you are.  Be calm. I know you did NOT bring McDonalds or tuna sandwiches with you, or any food to entice wildlife, so is the bear considering you a food source? If somehow a packed picnic lunch found its way into your pack, remove your pack and toss it on the ground ahead and away from you. Disassociate yourself from it and begin to back away. Do not run or turn your back on the bear; that’s what prey do and loud noises might force it to protect itself. Again, DO NOT RUN, it will stimulate the animals predatory instinct.  Black bears often will bluff charge, it will be difficult, but stand your ground. After it stops a few feet from you, you can continue your backing away and the bear will definitely investigate the pack that you left. Don’t bother going back for it, which is why you pack your car keys and turned-off phone (otherwise  the battery will wear down trying to find a signal while you’re in the mountains) on your person, preferably in a zip-up pocket or safety-pinned to your clothing.  (I had to re-hike a snowy and difficult trail looking for car keys once. Lesson learned.)

Being respectful and aware of the animals comfort zone will go a long way. Another point to remember is that dogs irritate bears. If you hike with an unleashed dog, please change that habit, it’s a danger to Spot and to other hikers. Secondly, as your dog jogs ahead, encounters a bear, it runs back to you for protection. Guess who they are leading back to you? Yup,  Spot just brought you one big unwanted “gift”.

My biggest problem is getting an enounter on film, getting the camera out fast enough to capture the rare moment. And you may want to check behind you occasionally, especially if you’re preoccupied taking pics of your exciting encounter.  Remember, BEAR SIGHTINGS AND ENCOUNTERS ARE UNUSUAL. I have been in the bear country for the majority of my hikes, 2-3 times a week and it took over 3.5 years before I actually sighted a bear. Bear encounters are rare. So relax and have fun!

Snakes. While you’re checking the ground ahead of you for scat to avoid, protruding roots or rock to trip you up (aka ‘speed bumps’), and for anything alive, you may as well look for snakes.  Snakes are shy critters and prefer not to interact with you. They are typically unaggressive. They usually slither away before you’ve approached them since they have sensed your “trespass” by the vibration of your steps. They don’t have ears, can’t hear you so if you’re screaming at it, it’s for naught.  If it’s a rattler and it actually rattled at you, (they do not always rattle) it’s simply warning you that you’re too close. It wants it’s “space”, so give it some.  The last thing a snake actually wants to do is to bite you, as any close encounter with another animal (including YOU) puts the snake at risk as well.

Please, do NOT go chasing after it because you have “great video” especially if it is rattling at you. You are putting yourself and companions at risk and you are needlessly harassing animal life. You have most likely chased it into an area where there are other snakes & while you’re videoing one, you have others who see you as a threat. Quite the picture, isn’t it?  If that isn’t enough incentive, not only is a bite very painful but will run you $100,000 AND UP for anti venom that is if you get to medical within a reasonable time.  More on first aid in Part Two

Western Diamondback

Western Diamondback Rattle Snake by Marybeth Haydon

Back away and wait for it to wander off. It out-of-the-ordinarily lingers? Then from a distance, toss a few rocks around it, no need to hurt or kill it, and it will move away to the nearest brush or rock hideaway. Or you can stomp your feet, to the snake it will feel like an entire army is approaching, and as shy as it is, off it will go. If it’s injured you may need to pull from your patience reserve, but it will eventually get out of your way. I usually “X” mark the trail dirt with my trekking pole so that on my return I can be aware that there was one at that spot on my way up.  Also, I use my poles to tap the rock in front of me as I descend from a hike since I can’t see what’s beyond or under the rock ahead.  They like to hide in the crevices.  ALWAYS tap-out any log or rock that you intend to rest upon.  For your hiking times you can purchase a pair of *snake gaiters if that will make you feel safer, which I wear when I’m trail-blazing and off trail. Again, my biggest problem with snakes (well, every wildlife encounter) has been getting the camera out fast enough. Even after accidentally standing on a really ticked off & coiled rattler, (NOT RECOMMENDED) I wasn’t bitten, by the grace of God. I repeat: accidentally!  (W.T. the Novice chapter 7) I’ve learned to stay on trail while on regular treks since then!  Do NOT approach or handle snakes, or any of our wildlife. And, generally, a triangular head means venomous. A rounded head, not.  But I’m speaking generally and from experience from within California; I’m not familiar with other states and their wildlife. So do your research before you hike. As a rule, the young venomous snakes, if they strike, in their inexperience tend to over-envenomate which is what makes their bite more dangerous. Keep your distance, please. But no need to be freaked out now that you know their behavior, you know what to expect and how to respond.A Bobcat will most likely run from you, or simply watch you as you pass. They’re the size of a really overgrown tom cat and generally do not pose a threat, but such a sighting is definitely camera worthy!

11-13-09MountainLionEducationAndIdentificationA mountain lion is one creature I strongly doubt I would be saying, “How cool!” if encountered or sighted. Although, I would really prize a photo op with one.

The cougar is dangerous and has been known to attack people and children.  If you’re hiking with a group, all the better. But if you’re the smallest person in the group, you do not want to be last in line. It signals weakness, possible prey to the cougar. In CA, a woman was attacked from behind as she rode her bike along a fairly trafficked trail. The animal was later euthanized.

They are gorgeous animals, big, strong and potentially lethal. They like to be at the highest point, but they also are ground level, under brush for surprise attacks. Even at a distance a brief glimpse should be cause for alarm. Though the cougar is most likely to leave the area, you should group together and travel with caution. If there are repeated sightings, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself and others. Be alert and on guard for the remainder of your hike. Also, the mountain lion is crepuscular, so plan the hours of your hike around that. This is one animal I highly respect and depend completely upon the Lord for help and protection against. He is more than capable! Then I subsequently rely upon my training, research, experience and upon my God-given senses.

11-13-09MountainLionEducationAndIdentification2 If attacked by a mountain lion, appear larger: Raise your arms. If you have trekking poles raise them over your head, appear large. Pick up small children. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. Women, lower your voice, sound masculine, decisive. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it. Fight back if attacked: A hiker in Southern California used a rock to fend off a mountain lion that was attacking his son. Others have fought back successfully with sticks, caps, jackets, garden tools and their bare hands. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Fight back aggressively!

Deer. Believe it or not, they can be aggressive.  Simply keep your distance and appreciate these lovely creatures from afar. Do not approach and feed. If a wild animal appears docile, is bedded down and is allowing you to approach it? There is something seriously wrong and it will most likely attack you in lightening speed.  Leave wild animals alone. If you accidently stumble upon one up close, do not look it in the eye. Stay still, look down, it will take off.


Gray Fox by Marybeth Haydon

Fox, Coyote, Bighorn sheep. These fascinating animals commonly will avoid you, but if you get the privilege of sighting them, I sincerely hope you brought your camera! Fox packs actually use one area for scatting, called a fox latrine. When you see multiple, thin, fur-embedded scat you have probably hit upon a fox latrine. Get your camera ready, they are so fun to watch as they track mice underground!The bighorn sheep will tolerate your presence as long as you are quiet and do not look them (or any animal) in the eye. They feed on the brightest of food, the bright color signals high nutrition. So, when we thoughtlessly release those mylar balloons into the atmosphere, the sheep are dying from feeding on them. FYI.

Coyote, in a pack should be considered dangerous. Pack attack on humans are not a common occurrence. Again, if you’re carrying food, you’re making yourself a target. If approached, toss that Bigmac!

TWO-LEGGED THREATS: And if you routinely hike alone, may I suggest that you carry some sort of pepper spray?

REMEMBER: Preparation is key, watching for danger signs will become habit, a very good habit, and you will be able to enjoy your trek with confidence and calm. Yes it’s wild out there, just not so savage that you should stay away.

* I’m very happy with the snake gaiters that I purchased from Uplanders Warehouse

Your comments, concerns, personal experiences and information is greatly encouraged!  Your comments may help someone else! Also check back for updates on Part 1 and Part 2 of the Fight Or flight blog. Scroll for my next blog, Part Two.

Click for Part 2 Discussed in FIGHT OR FLIGHT  Part Two: Signs of Presence, Danger Signs, Precautions, First Aid for snake bite.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s