Tips for surviving a wild animal encounter

080930135301-large black bearWith the numerous wildfires, our wildlife are getting displaced, increasing the chances of an “encounter of the worst kind”.

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.

  • 1Bear


    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.

  • 2Elk


    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.

  • 3Bison


    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.

  • 4Mountain Lion


    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.

  • 5Shark


    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.

  • 6Stingray


    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.

  • I wish I could help you, but I can’t.

    Nobody else can save you, only Jesus Christ can. Trust Jesus Christ of Nazareth today. He loves you so completely!

    Admit that you are a sinner and turn from sin. Believe that Jesus Christ of Nazareth died for you, He was buried and rose from the dead. Through prayer, invite Jesus Christ of Nazareth into your life to become your personal Savior.

    No one is guaranteed a tomorrow and the Bible has predicted the current world events to warn all mankind of the return of Jesus Christ, Who lives forever and ever. There will be no “second chances” once He comes to bring all Christians to heaven for eternity.

    His priceless, yet free to us gift of salvation is NOT something you want to reject, deep down you know you need Him. For YOUR sake, do not delay.


FIGHT OR FLIGHT Part Two: Signs of Presence, Danger, Precautions, First Aid


Photo courtesy Google images.

Trail Safety when practiced, will enhance your hiking experience because you will know ahead of time what to do should a problem present itself. These tips are general. I encourage you to do your own, and more thorough research. I’m available to answer questions and value your comments and concerns. Lets get to it:

Signs of bear presence:
Look for bears up in oak trees foraging on the acorns, or bedding down on the other side of a felled log, (don’t just hop over logs, check what may be on the other side first) near streams (they can NOT hear you when they’re near running water, so know that it’s easier to surprise them there) and among berry patches. More signs of bear activity are overturned rocks (foraging for grubs and worms), claw marks on tree trunks (announcing their prowess, height, and territory to other bears, sample photos at the end of this post), among heavy brambles and brush, or flattened grassy “beds”.  The most obvious is the bear track, which to me looks similar to a human bare foot print.  The tracks will have a “pigeon-toe” pattern, each paw print will show the piercings of their claws in front of the toe marking.  Also you can easily scan for fresh scat, dig marks, tracks, clawing markings on the ground where a bluff or animal challenge had previously occurred since you are checking the ground in front of you anyway. Caves, hollow trees and logs and even under dense brush are common “dens”. In other words, they’re everywhere, but there’s no reason to be frightened by it. Simply be aware that you are in their backyard and enjoy the adventure, camera-ready!

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Black bear foraging in brambles. By Marybeth Haydon

Learn to identify scat and tracks, (I found Scats and Tracks by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D very helpful) you will be amazed at how fascinating this can be! After capturing the scat or track on film, you can research it when you get home and the thrill of discovery is enhanced by the challenge the research presents. Don’t be timid about breaking apart scat with a handy twig to discover if there are berries, fur, or bone in it. Fur and bones, probably feline and canine. Berries, fur, hairs and garbage probably bear. Once the bear begins to feed on meat, the scat will be black in color with a stronger odor. Do not sniff scat, some can be hazardous & toxic when inhaled directly. (Raccoon scat can be mistaken for bear scat and the raccoon scat can carry a parasite that is fatal to humans.)

A bear cub will make a sound that sounds to me just like: “MA!” or “Maw!” which is their distress call. You know what to do. And it’s not scream and shout and run all about. Be calm, back away, deep breath now, you can do this. (But doubtful you ever will need to.) My personal experience was, the cub was more frightened of me and went scrambling up the nearest tree, calling “ma!” which gave me plenty of time to calmly leave the area. (Disappointed at a photo op missed, but I’m not completely stupid about photos.)Black bears often follow well-established trails. Wide double ruts formed in the grass or the ground are a good indication of a bear trail. In wooded areas, these trails often go under obstructions. They are careless about the amount of sound they make vs an animal that is stalking you such as the cougar. Listen as you hike.

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Cougar or Bobcat scratch post. Marybeth Haydon

Danger signs: A distress call from any of our wild animals’ young is a definite get-away-from-the-area signal.  You will recognize it immediately once you’ve heard it, regardless of the type of animal. I had stopped for a comfort break and as I prepared myself I heard this odd meowing, but not quite a meow and there was a definite “distress tone” to it. 2+2 I’m thinking it almost sounded feline, when my ah-ha moment engages: Oh Snap! I rushed out of the bushes and headed far, far away. My nemesis the cougar, flashes of its beautiful but powerful body raced through my imagination. Near her distressed cub/kitten? I think not! So use all of your senses while on trail. It will become second nature to you, much like noticing traffic problems before they happen.

imagesCAJ4VXYP food cache

Animal Food Cache courtesy Google images.

NOTE: Don’t carry your car keys or phone in your pack. If you need to throw your pack as a deterrent, there go your keys as well. Keep them in a zip-up pocket on your person or safety-pinned inside a pocket. On your person! I learned the hard way.

Food Cache: Another danger are food caches.  Usually you will know immediately from the distinctive odor and/or the abundance of flies that there is a kill in the immediate area. DO NOT REMAIN IN THE AREA OF A KILL OR FOOD CACHE. Remain calm, and leave the area. Animals are highly protective of their caches.

Cougar/Mountain Lion/Puma:

They are gorgeous animals, big, strong and potentially lethal. They like to be at the highest point, but they also are at 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.

hunting cougar

Intense, focused. A cougar on the hunt. Courtesy Google images.

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, using anything as a weapon.  Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Fight back aggressively! It goes without saying, but I must; a cougar attack must be reported.

Precautions, good sense:

  • Make a wide detour or leave the area if you see a bear at a distance. If you cannot detour or retreat, wait until the bear moves from your path. Always leave the animal an escape route.
  • Do not run. Most bears can run as fast as a racehorse. A scream or sudden movement can trigger an attack.
  • Don’t throw anything at a bear; it may provoke an attack.
  • Do not wear scented perfumes, sunblock, chapstick, etc. as scents attract a habituated bear.
  • Do not pack-in food that is not in bear containers.
  • Never feed a wild animal. It is a disservice and a disgrace! The animal will likely end up euthanized because of it.
  • The sight or sound of multiple flies, ravens or crows means you are near a carcass. Leave the area immediately.
  • Heavy, foul scent, like old, spoiled meat. Carcass, a sure sign to detour safely.
  • Menstruating women should hike another time when you’re not on your cycle.

First Aid Snake Bite:

One should always carry an ace bandage and small – large band aids with them on any hike. To treat a snake bite, wrap the limb a few inches above the bite snugly with the ace. The idea is to slow the lymphatic not the blood flow. You are NOT applying a tourniquet! You should be able to get a finger under the ace, between the ace and the limb. Do NOT suck-out the venom. Try to avoid unnecessary exertion. Obviously, get medical help immediately. Take a few cleansing breaths and force your thundering heart to slow down, calm down. Rarely is a rattler bite fatal. Expensive, extremely so, yes. Fatal no. You will probably feel faint, it’s that post-adrenalin download. Go ahead & squat so that should you faint, you don’t have far to go. Just practicalities here. Where you were bitten will be painful and may begin to tingle. Don’t stress it, it is what it is. You’re not dying out in the wilds. If you have a pen in your pack (some people take notes on what they observed during the hike) draw a circle around the bite, 2″ from the center of the bite.  Write the time down. This will help first responders. It will swell. Again, it is what it is. Be calm, your body is responding the way it should.

Hiking alone? Well, with that fire starter in your 10 essentials, if it is safe to do so, start a signal fire only if you are in a very clear area around you and above you, so that a responding helicopter will be able to CLEARLY see you and the smoke. Lay flat, spread out for the maximum exposure for the helicopter overhead, you want to be a very broad, wide “target”. Spread out that large red bandana you had in your ten essentials. When the helicopter is overhead, signal with your hand a slithering snake, (remember they’re viewing this from overhead, make the proper adjustments.) then the striking motion & point to the body part. They’ll understand & arrange medical & evac for you.

No possibility of a signal fire, trees too dense? Not the ideal situation, but you need to hike out. Get your composure, obviously pray, and be as easy on the affected limb as possible, you may have to scoot your way downhill rather than chancing wide, deep steps. Limit your mobility while being safe. No trekking poles? Snag a downed limb to use as a cane, the less stress on the affected limb the better. (Assuming it’s a leg.)

Since I hike during the week, (low trail traffic) I encounter snakes a lot. Remember with weather patterns changing, that snakes are out from their hibernation at atypical times (at least for my state, CA) and you do need to keep an eye out for them. They like the trail and rocks, anywhere that the sun can bake upon them. If you encounter a snake whose eyes look clouded-over, it is in the process of shedding its skin. THEY ARE VERY UNPREDICTABLE DURING THIS PHASE. Just a heads up.

Ten Essentials:

You’ve probably heard about this. You can customize your pack, but here are a few that really are essential:

  • Extra water!!
  • Fire starter (I use cotton balls saturated with vaseline in an old, small film canister.)
  • Waterproof matches
  • First Aid to include ace bandage and band aids
  • Map. You printed the trail details from a website? Don’t leave the directions in the car!
  • Compass
  • Flashlight
  • Knife
  • Sunscreen. Large red bandana
  • Extra clothing (ie extra jacket, preferably waterproof)

Remember, there are always exceptions to the rule, these are wild animals. But the more informed you are as to their usual behavior, the more relaxed and confident you will be on handling any encounter.


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Do your research! courtesy Google images

Do your research from various sites on how to handle animal encounters pertaining to the area and state that you will be hiking in, for your general 411 and safety confidence. If you’re camping, after you’ve set-up go chat with the ranger and see how they handle wildlife for their particular park. If you’re hiking in a different state, please check with their local forestry dept., and with their fish & game for wildlife information particular to their state. I also look up the fire department number for the area that I’m hiking. Some small towns are volunteer fire dept and have a direct number which is actually faster than 911. Do your research. When you know how to handle a situation in advance, the more relaxed you will be while on trail, making your adventures truly sensational! My knowledge is far from replete, so please, do your homework!

Leave no trace is essential!  You got to enjoy your views litter-free, so please pass it on. It’s important that we all practice good stewardship. I carry a small sandwich bag in a designated pocket to collect any used tissue that I may have had to use (allergies), perhaps you have additional tips on keeping wildernesses beautiful and vibrant, I’d love to hear from you!

If you have something to add, I value your comments.  More Identifying Photos below. Your comments at the end of this post may help someone else logging-on to read & learn. Please post your comments!

black bear claw marks on alder tree

Bear claw markings by Kim Cabrera

3-19-11 two marshal cyn trails scouting 034

Habituated bear scat (note the saran wrap) by Marybeth Haydon


Bearprint by Marybeth Haydon

2 large area of scratchings

Hasty markings on trail by Marybeth Haydon

You can see more photos of tracks and scats at my FB page   Click for Part 3   Click for Part 1