Wildlife Face to Face: How to be Prepared

For the average person, there is little likelihood of an encounter with a bear, a cougar, or an alligator. Nonetheless, as the prevalence of wildlife increases in inhabited areas around the country, experts say it pays to be prepared. And it could mean the difference between a happy outing and serious injury.

Should you find yourself face to face with any wild animal outside of the zoo, the single most important thing is to remain calm, says Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. People put themselves at greatest risk when they panic, and particularly when they turn around and run, since that triggers an instinctive chase response in animals, he explains.

On the other hand, don't approach the animal either, cautions Mr. Malmsbury. "Don't walk up to the animal, don't throw food at it, and don't try to take a picture of it."

Instead, just back away slowly. And avoid direct eye contact.

If threatened by a mountain lion, make yourself appear as large as possible by raising your arms over your head. Find a large stick and be prepared to use it if the cat comes any closer. Make noise - yell, scream - or even talk to the lion as you would to a threatening dog. You can also throw rocks or sticks at the lion to scare it off. But if it pounces, fight back as hard as you can. In most cases, mountain lions will retreat in the face of any real battle.

In fact, lions very rarely attack adult humans, and fatal attacks by mountain lions have almost exclusively been on small children. Therefore, always keep children close to you when in mountain lion country. And teach them how to react to an attack.

With black bears, most of the same rules apply: Back away slowly while still facing the bear and make some noise. You can speak calmly to the bear, yell at it, or even sing to it. The idea is to get the bear to understand that you're human.

If you get out of its way, it will probably leave you alone, since black bears are not naturally combative and don't want to risk getting hurt. For that reason, it's very important to fight back if you are attacked. Don't curl up in a ball or try playing dead.

When camping in wildlife habitat, prevention will be your best defense. Keep your campsite clean, disposing of garbage properly and storing food in bear-proof containers or suspended from a tree. Don't sleep near your food-storage area. And keep your pet on a leash - or better yet, leave it at home.

Above all, never, ever feed wildlife.

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