Wild animals still rarely prey on humans, but assaults by big-toothed, long-clawed critters are on the upswing in the developed world and if you are attacked odds are near 50-50 that you or someone close to you did something wrong.
These are among the conclusions of more than a dozen scientists, including noted North American bear attack researcher Stephen Herrero, who put their names to a study provocatively titled “Human behaviour (sic) can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries.”
What is found inside the report in the January issue of “Nature” is not, however, quite what might be expected by Alaskans, who love to debate the reasons for the handful of bear attacks that happen in the state each year.
Consider the first item on the list of “risk-enhancing human behavior” involved in almost half of of the attacks for which humans are held fully or partially responsible:
“Parents leaving children unattended.”
Wouldn’t have guessed that one, would you? Bad parenting, according to the scientists, accounts for 47.3 percent of the attacks. Most of these attacks, 50.8 percent, were staged by cougars. Coyotes followed at 27.9 percent with black bears at 13.2 percent. All three species are known to sometimes view small children as potential prey.
Second on the list of “risk-enhancing human behavior” should be easier for Alaskans to guess than number one. Anyone, anyone, anyone?
Loose dogs. Surely somebody got this one. Dogs accounted for about 30 percent of the attacks.
The rest of the reasons people get in trouble with big, predatory, wild animals should be pretty predictable to residents of the 49th state: Searching for a wounded animal while hunting (duh), engaging in outdoor activities at twilight or night, and approaching a female with young (double duh).
“These are clearly risk-enhancing behaviors when sharing the landscape with large carnivores,” the study authors write.
Most dangerous predator in North America
Now can you guess the animal most likely to take a bite out of you on this continent? It’s probably not going to be the animal you think. In fact, according to the study, this animal wasn’t attacking anyone prior to 1975, but now accounts for 31 percent of North American attacks, including one or two in Alaska’s largest city in recent years.
Got it, yet? It’s the lowly coyote.
Number two on the list is far more predictable: the cougar. It was involved in 25.7 percent of North American attacks on humans, followed by brown/grizzly bears, 13.2 percent; black bears, 12.2 percent and wolves, 6.7 percent.
The sample size for all attacks, which includes those by polar bears and European brown bears plus the species already mentioned, remains amazingly small. Researchers were able to find only 700 documented attacks in North America, Europe and Russia since 1955.
Still, they noted an uptick in attacks began in the period 1965-1974 as the environmental movement took root and more urban people ventured into the woods. Attacks then accelerated in pace with increased recreation visits to wild areas through 1995-2004.
Recreation activities began to plummet as baby boomers aged and recreation visits decreased, but attacks stayed disproportionately high. Recreation visits in 2014 were back down to near 1985 levels, according to the study, but wild animal attacks for 2005-2014 were more than twice as high as those for 1985-1994.
“Even if attacks have increased over time, they remain extremely rare events,” the study noted. “Other wildlife (bees and mosquitoes, spiders, snails, snakes and ungulates) and domestic dogs are far more responsible for human fatalities.”
If you were under some other impression, blame the media. It seems to be the thing to do.
“The media often overplay large carnivore attacks on humans, causing increased fear and negative attitudes towards coexisting with and conserving these species,” the study said.
Do animals fear us less?
The study does point to a number of factors that might be keeping attacks high even as fewer people visit wild areas for recreation. One of them is the movement of wild animals into suburban environments.
“The remarkable increase in coyote attacks may be related to both the recent substantial expansion of the coyote range in eastern North America and increased conflicts in suburban residential areas,” where coyotes become habituated and lose their natural fear of humans, the study said.
Another big factor might be simple human ignorance as the peoples of the world have shifted from rural societies, where youth grew up learning how to behave around wild animals, to urban societies, where youth are rarely exposed to animals largely than squirrels or wilder than dogs.
“Our main hypothesis is that lack of knowledge of people about how to avoid risky encounters with large carnivores engenders risk-enhancing behaviors,” the study said. “Many people are not prepared to safely enjoy outdoor activities or they behave inappropriately in the countryside.”
And then there is a third factor that the authors approach in a most politically correct fashion: hunting.
“The patterns of attacks reported here may also reflect an increasing number of bold individuals in large carnivore populations, as this trait is often correlated with aggressiveness,” the study says.
“Persecution (ie. killing)…is expected to result in the disproportionate removal of bold individuals, as they are less cautious, and thus more likely to be killed. As a consequence, shy individuals might have been over-represented in remnant large carnivore populations in the past. Additionally, individuals may become more vigilant and actively avoid contact with humans during times of intense persecution.”
The most interesting data buried in the report might involve the number of attacks by European brown bears, a long persecuted species whose behavior some ecologists thought had been modified possibly forever. That bear was often described as “shy,” and in the period prior to 1975, there was only one reported attack by a European brown bear on a human compared to 18 for the North American brown-grizzly bear for the same period.
European brown bears, however, enjoyed a long protection from hunting starting in the 1970s. Attacks started rising in the mid-1970s, and peaked at eight, still a tiny number, in the period 1995-2004. Black bear attacks in North American show a slower but similar increase in attacks.
The study notes the end of bounties on large carnivores 40 to 50 years ago, and the steady increase in the number of large carnivores in most populations in the four decades since. These increases in the numbers of large carnivores came at the same time as more urban residents began taking to the woods for recreation, which was almost certain to lead to problems.
The reason for school? Sense is not common
The study suggests better education might be in order.
“It is up to us to reduce the likelihood of an attack,” it says. “The increasing human presence in areas inhabited by large carnivores, together with their population recoveries, requires an improvement in information, education and prevention guidelines, and their enforcement, which are of paramount importance to reduce both the risks to humans and the killing of carnivores (who threaten or attack people).
“Nowadays, educational and interpretive efforts aimed at decreasing the risk of large carnivore attacks should not focus exclusively on people living in rural and wilderness areas. Indeed, many people living in cities should also be included within the category of groups at risk because of the increasing number of them enjoying outdoor activities in areas inhabited by large carnivores and the expanding population of carnivores (mainly coyotes) in suburban areas.”
But the study doesn’t exactly say what you might think at first glance.
The primary foolish human behavior? “Leaving children unattended,” according to the study.