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In the rural and suburban towns of the US – with their brick city halls and tree-lined medians – it’s easy to fall prey to the illusion that wildness no longer exists.

The wild animals of the world aren’t caged by such illusions.

They’re in search of two simple things: food and shelter. City limits don’t mean a thing to them. A wandering bear is no more aware of entering town than a hiker is of crossing from one wolf pack’s territory to another – neither traveler pays any mind until the steward gets aggressive. 

Every once in a while wildlife wander into human areas.

Mountain lions slink down from the foothills in search of easy prey. Bucks in rut wander into town, throwing caution to the wind in hopes of finding a mate. Bears do all they can to get their fill before winter hibernation. Wolf packs get more aggressive. Raccoons, foxes, and opossums turn to the easiest food sources like compost piles, trash cans, and the like.

Next to giving birth, encountering a wild animal is one of the most primal experiences a person can have. We become animals. There is no reasoning with a bear. If it’s hungry and deems you to be an easy meal, you’ve got a fight on your hands. Just ask the Montana man who was attacked by a grizzly … twice in October 2016. And yet even with these stories all over the news, it’s important to remember that wild animals are different from humans.

Animals who attack are not murderers, they’re just animals. It’s what they do.

It’s our responsibility – as the species enlightened with complex thought and an upright gait – to know how to interact with wildlife in a respectful, safe, and intelligent manner.

Small Wilds

The most common wild animals that humans encounter are the little guys like foxes and opossums. They hang around humans because we make such nice warm homes. And because we make a lot of trash that they love to eat.

But don’t discount them just because they’re smaller in stature. A possum, for example, is a generally docile creature, but it won’t hesitate to bite if it feels threatened. The best course of action if you find a possum in your yard is to let it be. Don’t approach it or try to catch it.

That being said, it’s not always feasible to just let the little guys be. Anyone with chickens, a garden, or pets knows that sometimes one must set up boundaries to protect crops and critters.

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Foxes are known for causing all sorts of trouble in rural areas – eating chickens, stalking pets – and yet it’s important to remember that they’re just exhibiting their natural behavior. Whatever resentment a human feels toward a wild animal is a reflection on humanity more so than the creature. 

Instead of trapping a fox with an inhumane leg-hold trap, which reeks of vengeful cruelty, there are much kinder means of catching a scoundrel fox to relocate him away from one’s home. A camouflaged wire cage baited with fishy-smelling cat food, pork, or other meat can lure in even the slyest of foxes. Once the fox is caged, it can easily be released in the woods outside of town.

If trapping is not working, the Humane Society offers a whole slew of other creative ways to deter small predators like foxes:

  1. Leave a scent they dislike like smelly gym shoes
  2. Mount shiny, reflective balloons around the den
  3. Use a capsicum-based granular repellent

Living with small wild animals is a balancing act. We want to respect their need to thrive and at the same protect our own livelihood. With the right tools, the balance can easily be struck.

Big Wilds

Wild animals must be treated with the utmost respect and caution. When wild animals like bears, mountain lions, and wolves come into human-populated spaces like towns and cities, there are a series of questions to take into consideration: Am I in immediate danger? Is the animal behaving aggressively? Has the animal been reported to the authorities?

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If no one is in immediate danger, secure your safety and report the sighting to local authorities. Getting a head start on the animal is important – a non-aggressive animal will often get tranquilized and returned to the wild, while an animal that has attacked a human will be killed on sight.

If the animal is demonstrating aggressive behavior, it’s perfectly acceptable to call 911. If he or she is just loping around town, call Fish and Game or your local wildlife hotline to report its presence.  Remember, no matter where you are it is a huge gift to get to see a wild animal. Enjoy the moment.

For many of us, spending time outdoors is elemental to who we are. Whether you spend your day off foraging for mushrooms, hiking with the family, or geocaching around town or in the woods, there’s a good chance you could come across a large wild animal. It’s important to know the proper way to respond. Initially, stay calm and back out of its territory as mindfully as possible. If the animal spots you, assess the situation and take the following precautions.

Black Bears

Black bears tend to be small to medium in size, and are generally less aggressive than their grizzly cousins. They are insatiably curious and they’re great tree climbers. If you see a black bear and it doesn’t see you, identify yourself by talking in a calm, low voice so as not to frighten it.

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If you encounter a black bear:

  1. Make yourself look as big as possible.
  2. Pick up small children.
  3. Do not give the bear access to your food (it will only want more).
  4. Do not drop your pack; it makes you appear bigger and is protective in case of attack.
  5. If attacked, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Try to escape or fight back.
  6. Concentrate kicks and blows on the bear’s muzzle and face.

Grizzly Bears

There was a time when grizzly bears roamed throughout the entire western US, Great Plains, and down into Mexico. Today, they are on the endangered species list. Female grizzlies can weigh up to 800 lbs., while a large male can be up to 1,700 lbs.

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In addition to points 1-4 above, if you encounter a grizzly bear:

  1. Avoid eye contact and do not run.
  2. If the animal is not approaching, walk away slowly – never turn your back on a bear.
  3. If a grizzly charges, stand your ground.
  4. If the bear makes contact: PLAY DEAD.
  5. Lay flat on your stomach, protect your neck with your hands and spread your legs to make it difficult for the bear to turn you over.
  6. If the attack persists, FIGHT BACK. Hard.

Mountain Lions

The mountain lion population in the US is on the rise. As result, there have been more and more mountain lion sightings in urban areas. As a general rule, mountain lions prefer to avoid people. They have a generally calm temperament and like to avoid confrontation unless they’re hungry. If you see a mountain lion, keep your distance and consider yourself lucky. If it pounces or pursues, consider yourself in fight mode.

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If you encounter a mountain lion:

  1. Do not approach the animal.
  2. Do not run – its chase instincts might kick in, even if that wasn’t its intention.
  3. If the mountain lion acts aggressively, open your jacket, wave your arms, and make yourself as large as possible.
  4. Speak in a low, firm tone.
  5. Throw whatever you can at the animal – stones, sticks, a hat. Do not crouch.
  6. If it attacks, stay standing as long as you can and FIGHT BACK.

Wolves

Pack wolves will not generally hunt humans. Wolf attacks are most often spurred-on by rabies, human habituation, or territory infringement by pets. It’s important when you’re in wolf territory to keep dogs at heel.

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If you do find yourself in a dangerous encounter with a wolf:

  1. Stand tall to make yourself appear larger.
  2. Calmly back away and maintain eye contact.
  3. Do not run.
  4. Do not turn your back.
  5. If the wolf does not retreat, yell and throw things while continuing to back away.
  6. If the wolf attacks, FIGHT BACK to show that you’re too dangerous to attack.

Whether in the wilderness or in your own backyard, interacting with wild animals is all about respect. We need to respect animals’ space, instincts, and needs. They share this planet with us.

And at the same time, respect isn’t always about deference.

If an animal acts aggressively, know that it is important to make it clear that you are above it on the food chain. Be smart. Be informed. Be calm. If we can approach our interactions with wild animals from a place of calm intellect, we’re more likely to safely leave the encounter with a sense of honor for witnessing an animal’s wildness.

Author Katie la Kapro

Katie Kapro holds her MFA in nonfiction writing. She grew up in a family of backcountry rangers and is presently consumed with finding the best canyon hikes in the country.

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