“Pets are responsible for most animal attacks in the US, but if we’re just talking about wildlife, snakes and rodents (rats, squirrels, etc.) Animal Welfare, a DC-based nonprofit, wrote in an email: “The high-profile attacks from bears, cougars and other large mammals that you hear on the news are much rarer, but more likely to be dangerous, so it pays to be prepared.”
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With the summer outdoor season just around the corner, we will no doubt encounter animals in their natural habitat, a prospect that delights some groups more than others. “Wild animals want to be left to their own devices,” said Cameron Harsh, program director at the US office of World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit. “They don’t want to interact with humanity.”
To ensure a peaceful kingdom, we asked wildlife specialists in government agencies and nonprofits for advice on how to keep all creatures — two-, four- and non-legged, with or without tails, most with teeth — safe in the wild. can keep. Here are their guidelines:
Familiarize yourself with the fauna in the park or region you want to visit. “The basic rule, whether you go to Shenandoah or Yellowstone or Denali, [national parks], is to know what wildlife calls home,” said Bart Melton, director of the wildlife program at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit based in DC. Learn to identify the local residents (grizzlies have pronounced shoulder humps, while black bears do not) and note their schedules. For example, ungulates such as bison and coyotes are generally crepuscular, or most active at dusk and dawn, while alligators are active during the day and night. (They basically hold the same hours as a 24-hour dinner.)
You can find this information on park websites (search for national parks under the headings “Nature” or “Safety”) and at visitor centers and tourist offices. Trailheads usually have bulletin boards highlighting nature and sharing best hiking practices. State conservation agencies are also valuable resources. For example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website has a page called “Living with Wildlife and Preventing Wildlife Conflicts” with tips on securing food and links to short bios for nearly 400 species, including the black bear, bull shark, and cottonmouth/ water moccasin. The Arizona Game and Fish Department’s “Living with Wildlife” section offers an introduction to the state’s 13 rattlesnake species, plus guidelines for dealing with a run-up that includes a cougar, bobcat, bear, or javelina.
Be extra vigilant during major annual events. During calving and the mating season, for example, animals may behave more aggressively. In the spring, bears head out to forage for food after a long winter fast. Around the same time, cubs will venture out of their dens for the first time, with their protective mothers nearby. “If you see cubs, make sure you know where the mother bear is,” Melton said. “It’s extremely important to avoid getting between a female bear and her cubs.” Moose, bison and moose also calve during this period, so give the parents and their offspring a spacious berth. In the fall, bears binge for hibernation, a period called hyperphagia, and moose, caribou, elk and other ungulates compete for mates during the weeklong rut. “The male elk are pretty feisty,” Melton said. Therefore, never come between the boastful males and their objects of affection.
Give animals plenty of space. While there is no official distance figure, experts, including those from many national parks, recommend staying at least 75 feet from non-predatory creatures and 90 feet from predators. David Lamfrom, vice president of regional programs 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,” says Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, senior managing director of NPCA’s conservation programs, “you’re too close.” Speaking of photography, invest in a telephoto lens.
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Always adhere to designated trails and viewing platforms. Avoid surprising the wildlife. “Be predictable,” Lamfrom said, adding that animals like bears and moose tend to be sensible for the densely populated routes. At Shark Valley in Florida’s Everglades National Park, which is home to more than 200,000 alligators, visitors can observe the large reptiles from a streetcar or along a wooden boardwalk. “They won’t climb up to get you,” Barmeyer said. However, Meredith Budd, director of regional policy at the Florida Wildlife Federation, cautions against lingering on the water’s edge, especially at retention ponds and especially if you have a small dog in tow. “If there’s water in Florida,” she said, “there’s probably an alligator in there.”
Alligators take center stage in Florida’s Everglades National Park
Leave no trace of food. Clean up all your rubbish and sweep up any crumbs. If you’re camping, store your edibles in a bear-proof container. “In most cases, wildlife wants to avoid you, but if you omit the aluminum foil with burger drippings from your cookout last night, you make it hard for them to ignore you,” Hofberg said. Never leave a backpack of food lying around, even for the time it takes to snap a photo of a vista or to tie your shoe. Be aware of smells that might smell like a medicine cabinet to you, but like a Las Vegas buffet for a wild animal. For example, Melton advises campers not to bring toothpaste in their tent or put on deodorant before the lights go out. Also, don’t sleep in your hiking clothes, especially if you’ve grilled burgers in them.
Take preventive measures. Vocally announce your presence on trails in bear country. “Let the bears know you’re here,” Melton said. “Continuous renditions of good sing-alongs or every few minutes take turns with a, ‘Hey, Bear!’ shouting loudly is a good approach.” If you notice a carcass, don’t get involved: pass it on as soon as possible. In tall swamp 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 stingray territory, such as Florida’s Gulf Coast, shove your feet in the sand as a warning signal. In waters inhabited by sharks or barracudas, leave the shiny clothes and glittering, dangling accessories for the disco. “Don’t look like a fish,” Barmeyer advised. Also resist the urge to swim into a school of fish, which is basically a drive-through for aquatic predators.
In a dangerously close encounter, take the right course. This can differ per species. For example, with black bears, look directly at the threatening animal and fight back if the situation gets serious. With grizzlies, avoid eye contact and play dead in the event of an attack. However, there are some applicable rules. “In general, for animals that are predators, you don’t want to act as prey,” Hofberg said. “So don’t turn around and don’t run away. Grow yourself up, and when you are with others, come together.” In the “Staying Safe Around Bears” section, the National Park Service suggests talking to the bear calmly, as if you were trying to comfort a child, and waving your arms slowly. Carry bear spray, but only use it in an emergency. The Be Bear Aware campaign offers free instructions on how to handle the deterrent. Melton reminds hikers that bear spray isn’t just a stronger version of mosquito repellent: “Don’t spray it on your tent.” To defend yourself against a moose, bison, or moose, try to place an object, such as a tree or boulder, between yourself and the animal. For a comprehensive guide to de-escalating wildlife conflict, check out outdoor retailer REI’s “Wildlife Safety Tips” section.
Show respect. It should go without saying: never feed, taunt or harass the animals.
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines related to the pandemic before planning any travel. Information about health declarations for travel can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map with travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s health declarations webpage.