Carnivore attacks are increasing, and we’re partly to blame

This article is available in Spanish through a partnership with the Institute of Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Read in Spanish >>

It was an otherwise lovely autumn day when a six-year-old boy hiking with his parents and siblings along a densely wooded trail west of Cupertino came face-to-face with a mountain lion. While predators usually keep away from humans, this mountain lion was perhaps a bit bolder. The boy survived the encounter with just a few bite wounds and scratch marks; the adults nearby managed to chase the carnivore away. Local game wardens set out to hunt down the cat. If they caught one and its DNA was a match for the saliva samples taken from the child’s wounds, the lion would be killed.

If it seems as if reports of this variety are increasing, you’re right. The frequency of these attacks really is increasing, but the reason for the trend isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. That’s according to a study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports.

Spanish researcher Vincenzo Penteriani and his colleagues point out that large carnivore populations have increased over the past 40 to 60 years or so in many developed countries, thanks to consistent conservation and protection efforts. They also verify that attacks on humans by large carnivores have likewise increased. In North America, coyotes and mountain lions are at the top of the list, followed by bears and wolves. In Europe, bears are the leading offenders.

Combined with sensationalized media reports, this correlation leads people to become irrationally afraid of carnivores, and that in turn leads to reduced support for predator conservation efforts. But as statisticians will quickly remind you, correlation is not causation.

What’s missing from the equation is that humans in developed countries have been spending more and more time enjoying the great outdoors. And many of us don’t know how to do it safely. “From an early age most of us learn social norms, rules, and how to decrease risks in urban environmental settings,” write the researchers, “but much less effort is expended to teach us how to safely enjoy outdoor activities or to behave appropriately in the countryside.”

Indeed, nearly half of all properly documented attacks can be associated with unnecessarily risky human behavior. Parents too often leave children unattended, owners walk dogs without leashes, joggers run alone at twilight, hikers approach a female predator with young nearby. (Surely the recent trend involving folks attempting to take selfies with wild animals isn’t helping, either.)

Despite a statistical increase in these events, they still remain exceedingly rare. Most human-carnivore interactions occur with little fanfare. Across the entire Northern Hemisphere, large carnivores have been responsible for an average of 24 attacks and fewer than four fatalities each year over the past decade. Last year, a mountain lion became trapped under a house near Los Angeles and despite a high level of harassment by wildlife officials—including being shot by bean-bag bullets—the cat remained impressively calm and left the crawlspace, quietly, as night set.

Other wild animals—bees, mosquitos, spiders, snails, snakes, and deer—along with domestic dogs, are responsible for far more human fatalities every year. But fairy tales were not written about snails gobbling up grandma or about deer families enjoying porridge that’s either too hot or too cold. Our fear of the big and the toothy turns carnivores into victims as well. That’s because the offending animal is frequently killed, while negative attitudes towards predators become more firmly entrenched.

As people in developed countries find more opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreational activities, and as some predators become more comfortable in urban and suburban habitats, it’s important that people learn how to remain safe when encountering wild animals and how to avoid unpleasant encounters in the first place. They also need to be reminded of the positive effects of predators on local ecosystems so that not all predator-related messages are negative. These educational efforts need to be targeted not just at those living in more rural areas, but also those in the densest of cities. They too head for nature on the weekends and during summer vacation. Perhaps then, a rare glimpse of a fleeing mountain lion could inspire awe and wonder rather than existential dread. – Jason G. Goldman | 09 March 2016

Source: Penteriani, V., et al. (2016). Human behaviour can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries. Scientific Reports, 6. DOI: 10.1038/srep20552.

Header image: Warning sign in San Mateo County, via Flickr/Ingrid Taylar.