Playing in bear country, or any other predator’s country for that matter, is much different from dealing with these animals on our own turf. When you’re out in the wilderness, there are some things you should do to try and protect yourself.
Camping is one situation where you may be likely to encounter a predator, primarily a bear. Bears are very attracted to campgrounds because of the food they provide. If they’ve been fed by humans before, they may not be as shy as they would normally be, and they’ll begin to associate humans with food. This could mean a bear might be aggressive and pushy if he thinks you have what he needs.
The most important thing you can do is keep your campsite very clean. If the campground provides bear-proof trash cans, be sure to take all of your garbage to them instead of leaving it lying around your campsite. If you don’t have a place to empty your garbage, bag it, or even double bag it, in plastic bags and store it away from your tent. Don’t try to burn or bury your garbage because bears can still find scents and will try to dig it up out of the ground or your firepit.
Store your food safely! Keep all of your food and coolers in your car trunk, or suspend them from a tree. The recommendation is that you suspend food at least 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the trunk of the tree. This will help keep bears from getting to it. Be sure not to store your food in the same place where you sleep. This could be a dangerous situation for you! If you have food smells on your clothes from cooking, store those away from your tent in a secure place.
If you have been cooking, be sure to thoroughly clean your barbecue grill or stove. Any leftover bits of food or grease will attract bears or other wild animals. If you’re using a table, wipe it clean. You may want to bring a grease-cutting cleaner with you to make sure all of the residue and smells are gone.
Toiletries, especially perfume, may also attract bears. Bears tend to be attracted to sweet smells and will try to get at those as well. Store those away from your tent or sleeping area. Make sure they’re in a secure place. You can protect yourself while you sleep by making sure that you’re practicing good personal hygiene.
If you store your toiletries, food, or smelly clothes in your car, lock it. Bears are more clever than you might think! Colorado wildlife officers had to deal with a situation in southern Colorado where a bear was breaking into cars! The bear wasn’t breaking the windows, either. He had actually learned how to open a certain type of car door. He would do just that and search the cars for food. When food is the motivating factor, wild animals can learn a great number of tricks!
If you’re not camping in predator country, you may be hiking in it. There are some good tips you can follow to protect yourself against predators.
Try to avoid hiking at dusk and dawn. These are active times for bears, in particular, and avoiding those times will decrease your chances of bumping into one.
It’s a good idea to make as much noise as possible while hiking to give animals a chance to realize that you’re coming. You’re more likely to be attacked if you surprise a wild animal. Make as much noise as you can while you hike. You can carry a walking stick to tap the ground, or even singing will give animals notice.
Avoid walking in heavily wooded or brushy areas. You can’t see as far in areas like this and you never know when you may round a bush and bump into a bear or a mountain lion. Try to stay in open areas where you can see what’s going on around you.
If you’re hiking with small children or pets, it’s best to keep them with you at all times, or at least make sure they’re in your sight. You should have your dogs on a leash, not only for their safety, but also because some states have laws against dogs running free and harassing wildlife. Whenever possible, try to hike in groups or with another person. This always helps to make the situation seem more threatening to a wild animal, meaning that animal will be more apt to avoid you than confront you. It’s also good because you’ll have help if someone were to be hurt.
You’re most likely to get attacked if you surprise a predator like a bear or a lion, or if you come too close to one who is feeding, or to a mother with young. If you do come across any of these situations, immediately move away. If the mother has young, be sure to give her a way to escape with her babies. Just as you would try to protect your kids against someone who was threatening them, a wild animal will also try to protect her young if she feels that you’re a threat. Wild animals have no way of knowing what your intentions are and they’re scared. Generally they’ll try to avoid conflicts with you and find a way to escape. Don’t linger to try and entice the babies to pet them or take pictures of them.
Whether a bear or a lion has young or not, try to stay calm if you come across one of them in the wild. Stop or back away slowly, but whatever you do, don’t run. This can trigger a natural instinct in a predator to chase you. You will not be able to outrun them. Don’t climb a tree to escape a bear; he could follow you. Keep facing the animal as you back away, backing up in a direction that will give the animal a way to escape and avoid you.
The mountain lions I worked with at the sanctuary really provided me with a clear window into mountain lion behavior. Whenever I started down the path to the grassy alley that ran between several large enclosures of mountain lions, they would crouch down and hide as I walked by. They thought that I didn’t see them. Although these lions were typically ex-pets, exhibiting more playful behavior, it was a fine line between play and hunting for prey. The lions would wait until I was a few feet away, and then they’d pounce or charge toward the fence at me. If I ever ran alongside the fence, they would run too, chasing me with wide eyes as if I were a deer. Their natural instinct is to hunt, and running away from them is a good way to become hunted.
If you’re confronted by a mountain lion, talk loudly and firmly to try and intimate him. Back away slowly, giving the animal a way to escape. Do what you can to try to appear larger than you are. Pull your jacket or sweatshirt up above your head. If you have a small child with you, put your child up on your shoulders. This will make you look larger and protect your child in case he or she may panic and try to run. Generally lions will take down old, sick, or young prey before they attempt to tackle healthy prey. If your behavior is animated and if you look large, you may not be a lion’s first choice.
If the lion starts to come towards you, throw stones or branches — whatever you can— to try and frighten him away. Try not to crouch down or turn your back to the cat. Wave your arms and continue to speak loudly and firmly. All of this will help to convince the lion that you’re a threat. If you’re attacked, do whatever you can to fight back. Try to remain standing, fighting upright.
If you’ve been confronted by a bear, talk aloud to him. He may stand upright or move closer to you to try and smell you. Once he realizes what you are, he may leave. A bear’s eyesight is good and his sense of smell is keen. The bear may try to intimidate you by charging you and retreating. Keep backing away slowly. If the bear does attack, fight back with whatever you can. Bears have been driven away by people fighting them with rocks, sticks, or whatever they have on them as well as their bare hands. Pepper spray is something you can carry with you for self-defense.
Coyotes are a pretty common sight but they’re generally elusive. Attacks on humans are extremely rare, although there have been cases where they have attacked small children. Coyotes are more likely to lose their fear of humans in urban areas as they become accustomed to us. Up close and personal confrontations with bobcats or lynxes are practically non-existent.
Bears and lions are the two major predators you have to be very aware of while hiking in their country. Lions in particular, however, are rare to see in the wild, as are instances of them attacking humans.
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Reprinted with permission from When Raccoons Fall through Your Ceiling by Andrea Dawn Lopez, and published by University of North Texas Press, 2002.