If you’re in a bug-out situation, you have plenty of things to worry about. Among them could be an attack from a wild animal. Wild animal attacks are rare, but the outcome is usually serious.
Educating yourself is necessary whether you live in the wilderness or the suburbs. Every animal reacts differently and knowing how to respond could save your life. To get some good advice, we talked to Kerry Gunther, bear management biologist at Yellowstone National Park. Follow along to see what to do in four different wild-animal encounter scenarios.
While we often want a simple solution to survive wild animal attacks, “there is no simple answer,” Gunther says. “It’s important to know what animals live where you are living or visiting and prepare yourself in case of an encounter. To best handle an attack, you need to understand the behaviors of the animal, see when an attack is coming and do your best to stay calm and use your head.”
Bears are commonly known animals and can be found throughout the U.S. Grizzly bears (found in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington) are more likely to attack than their more docile cousin, the black bear, but the risk is still very low. Bears are more likely to attack if they are surprised by a close encounter, this is called a defensive attack. Most attacks occur because the bear is trying to get rid of a threat to itself and its cubs.
How to know if the animal is provoked: If a bear hops toward you, charges, makes a huffing noise, sticks out its lips or slaps its paws on the ground, it’s a warning to back away. A bear standing on its hind legs is trying to gather more information to determine whether you are a threat. This isn’t necessarily an attack pose.
What to do: If you have a surprise encounter with a bear, make yourself look big and strong and back away slowly while facing the animal and avoiding eye contact. Don’t make sudden movements and don’t crouch down. Do not run. Give them a clear path to flee and keep your distance. If they aren’t leaving, scare them by making loud noises, banging on things, flashing lights, and the like.
If the bear charges you, stand your ground. If they make contact, play dead. Lie on your stomach, protect your head and stay silent and still. The bear wants to minimize the threat you pose, so playing dead makes them think the risk is gone. Don’t get up until the bear is gone.
Precautions: To minimize the chance of surprising a bear, make noise and avoid hiking at night when bears are most active. Hike in groups of three or more and carry bear spray, which is a hot pepper solution that temporarily impairs the bear. Never approach bears and be extra cautious around cubs. Reduce the risk of attracting bears by keeping food secure, putting trash in bear-proof containers and never feeding bears. Bears are strong and crafty—they will open doors and break into locked freezers to get at food or trash.
Things to remember: In very rare cases, a bear can attack in a predatory way rather than defensively. In this case, the bear will not give any warning signs (such as slapping, howling or jaw snapping). In a predatory attack, the bear’s ears are forward and it is fixated on you. If you see this, fight back using any tools you can find until the bear retreats. The bear will not stop until overpowered, injured or killed.
It is very rare to see a mountain lion and even more rare to be attacked by one. Mountain lions— also known as pumas, cougars or catamounts, live mostly in the western U.S. and Canada.
How to know if the animal is provoked: If a mountain lion is provoked, it will crouch, wag its tail, stare and keep its body low to the ground. Its ears flatten down and rear legs pump immediately before an attack. Most mountain lions will avoid a confrontation, so keep your distance if possible and make sure it has a path to flee.
What to do: If you have a close-range, surprise encounter with a mountain lion, stay calm and back away slowly while staring at the animal and talking in a loud, confident tone to alert them that you aren’t their prey—it is likely they are being protective. Never run from a mountain lion. Make yourself appear large, puff up your jacket, hold onto your kids, raise your arms and make noise. If they seem angry, throw rocks or sticks at the lion to try to scare it away. Don’t bend down or turn away from the animal. If a mountain lion appears to be stalking you, following from a distance and staring intently, it is likely they are assessing you as prey. Try to make it think you are a threat and not their prey. Throw things at the animal and make sure you scare it away before continuing on. Leave the area immediately and warn others. If the lion attacks, fight back and try to get up if you’re knocked down.
Precautions: Make noise to make sure the lion knows you are around and stay as far away from the animal as possible. Mountain lions are nocturnal, meaning they move at night, so be extra cautious when out at night. Hike in groups and make noise to reduce your chance of a surprise encounter.
Rattlesnake species can be found throughout the U.S. but are most prevalent in the South. As sit-and-wait predators, they are usually coiled waiting for prey to pass by. Rattlesnakes will attack if provoked, such as stepping too close to where they are coiled. Rattlesnake bites do occur, but death is very rare.
How to know if the animal is provoked: When uncomfortable, a rattlesnake vibrates its tail, making a distinct rattling noise. Rattlesnakes are most likely to attack out of self-protection if you don’t back away at their warning. Rattlesnakes would prefer to flee than attack. Give them space to get away.
What to do: If you ever hear the rattle, turn your head to find the rattlesnake and slowly back away from it. Always stay at least one body length (of the snake) away as rattlesnakes can attack at distances up to two-thirds of their body length, more if striking downhill.
Precautions: Be sure to wear proper, loose-fitting clothing when out in rattlesnake territory. Avoid sandals and low shoes; instead, opt for boots, preferably made of leather. Be especially cautious at night, when rattlesnakes are hunting for food. Watch where you put your hands and feet, and never reach into bushes or under rocks or logs without first looking to make sure no rattlesnakes are present.
Things to remember: Rattlesnake bites can include no venom, a little venom or a lot of venom depending on a variety of factors. If you suffer a rattlesnake bite, seek medical attention immediately, especially if you have signs of venom injection, including pain, swelling and blisters at the site of the bite. Other symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, confusion and other signs of allergic reaction.
A MOOSE ATTACK
Moose are generally not aggressive, but they can turn on you when tired, hungry, mating or provoked. Moose attacks are pretty rare but can happen. Female moose with calves or males during mating season are most likely to attack. Moose are very large animals, and an attack, including charging, kicking and stomping, can cause very serious injuries.
How to know if the animal is provoked: Often, moose will flee if they feel threatened, but sometimes, they turn aggressive. When moose are provoked, the hair on their neck stands up, their ears fold back and they clench their teeth or lick their lips. Their primary way of warning you is to charge. Many charges are “bluffs,” meaning they don’t actually strike you but aim to scare you away.
What to do: If you come across a moose, especially one with a calf, slowly back away. Talk loudly and make your presence known. If a moose charges you, run away as quickly as you can. Moose will rarely chase you far. Try to find a large rock or tree to hide behind until the moose has moved on. If a moose charges and knocks you to the ground, curl up in a ball and try to protect your head. Stay still until the moose is gone.
Precautions: To avoid an unwanted encounter with a moose, be cautious and keep your distance. Be aware that moose are great swimmers and are often found in low areas or near water sources.
Things to remember: Moose are especially provoked around animals and will go out of their way to attack. Keep your dogs away from moose at all times.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2014 printed issue of American Survival Guide.