Eco Etiquette: How To Avoid Dangerous Wildlife Encounters

Eco Etiquette: How To Avoid Dangerous Wildlife Encounters
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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I want to get out more in nature and maybe even go camping, but I'm freaked out after hearing about recent bear attacks in Yellowstone. What can I do to protect myself?


True story: Not long ago, my husband and I decided to go hiking in California's San Jacinto Wilderness. The trailhead wasn't far from the charming town where we were vacationing, but as we made our way on the path that day -- our baby girl strapped to my chest -- I felt a pang of uneasiness.

We're seasoned hikers, but this trail felt different: It was isolated high on a mountain ridge; it seemed unnervingly quiet. We also hadn't done our research: The ranger station had been closed that morning, so we had no idea what type of wildlife to expect in the area.

Ten minutes out, my husband turned to me: "I don't know, babe; I've got a bad feeling about this." Then, without warning, he seized my shoulders. "Stop!" he shouted.

There, across the path, was the largest snake I'd ever seen. Its scarlet stripes gleamed ominously: a poisonous coral snake.

We hightailed it out of there, my husband snapping an iPhone photo (so much for being immersed in nature) once a safe distance away. Back at the now-open ranger station, we presented the picture of our close encounter.

"Oh, that's a harmless mountain kingsnake!" chortled the ranger. "We've never seen anything poisonous up here!" Oops.

Clearly, I'm no wildlife expert. So to answer your question, I turned to someone who is: Adam Roberts, executive vice president of renown wildlife conservation organization Born Free USA. Whether it's camping near baboons and leopards or trekking through the jungles of Madagascar, Roberts has seen it all. Here, we spoke about how to stay safe stateside.

Jennifer Grayson: My snake encounter sounds pretty tame compared with all the news we've been hearing about bear attacks. Just last week, another grizzly charged a man in Yellowstone! What is going on?

Adam Roberts: Incidents between humans and bears may be increasing, partly as a result of human encroachment on wildlife habitat. There's less space for bears to be bears away from humans. Of course, it also may be that we have greater access to information about incidents because of the internet.

JG: So is the problem overblown by the media, or do people have cause to be more fearful?

AR: It's good that any wild animal attack is reported in the media! Hopefully it will help viewers learn places to go or not go and how to be more cautious when in the wilderness. I think people are better armed now than ever before to be mindful of their relationship with wildlife to try to avoid potentially harmful incidents.

JG: Speaking of being armed... No nature-lover would ever set out to harm an animal, but in a life or death situation... What about carrying a gun?

AR: Though you'll surely have varying opinions on this, I'm not sure that being armed with lethal force is the answer. Being armed can be just as dangerous as the wild animal from which one is trying to protect himself. Take precautions, first. Try to avoid conflict wherever possible. [Note: The discharge of a firearm is illegal in national parks.]

JG: So how does one avoid conflict? Clearly I need some lessons...

AR: Well, for instance, if you're in an area that is known to have snakes, bring a walking stick along and use it to disturb the ground in front of you as you walk -- it's better than treading on a snake!

JG: Duly noted. But what about grizzlies? I'm not so sure a walking stick would help.

AR: Bear pepper spray could work in the right situation. But you have to have it accessible and be ready and accurate.

JG: OK, bear spray at the ready. Does having a dog with you help or hurt?

AR: Having a big dog probably would help -- its bark could make wild animals think twice about moving into the area where you're hiking or sleeping. But protect the dog from being attacked, too! Make sure it's on a leash.

JG: What about small children? I want to foster that love of nature early on, but I don't want to put my daughter at risk.

AR: Like anything else in life, one should take extra precaution with young children. There's no need to take extra risks. Walk through neighborhood parks and local nature trails to start. And be mindful about keeping children close; smaller children can be mistaken for wildlife prey.

JG: Yikes. Can we run through a few different encounter scenarios? Black bear--

AR: When hiking in backcountry, make plenty of noise to avoid surprising one, first. If you do encounter one, back off slowly and allow the bear room to pass or leave. Food attracts bears, too, so pack it up properly.

JG: Grizzly--

AR: Grizzly attacks are really rare, but they are super dangerous. The best tip is to avoid the conflict by refraining from entering grizzly habitat. [More advice here.]

JG: Mountain lion?

AR: Also rare. The recommendation is to fight back.

JG: Generally speaking, what's the number one mistake that people make when encountering wildlife?

AR: Not being prepared and not keeping a respectful distance. Trying to get photos or an up-close look can be dangerous.

JG: What about you, Adam? You've dealt with so much wildlife. Any close calls to speak of?

AR: My closest call was at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand, where the small gated door to the tiger enclosure was unlocked. I was filming to show how dangerous that could be for small children who moved away from their parents. As I was in front of the ajar gate, a tiger began approaching. I closed and locked the gate as fast as I could!

JG: I can't believe that after all your treks through wilderness around the world, your closest encounter was at the zoo.

AR: Well, it was a zoo in Thailand if that counts! And no close encounters...because I take precautions!

For more tips on how to stay safe in the wild, visit

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