I recently stumbled upon a well-illustrated guide for dangerous animal encounters called Freeze or Flee.
It includes tips for surviving a wide range of wild animal attacks from piranhas, to hippos and even space aliens.
We don’t meet many piranhas or hippos in our neck of the woods, but Great Lakers have their own bevy of intimidating creatures that hardly encourage human interaction. Here are tips for avoiding disastrous encounters with them:
Sea lampreys are creepy looking water creatures, but since they only attach to cold-blooded organisms, they don’t pose any real danger to humans. “One might latch on if the person is really cold or if the lamprey is starving to death,” said Cory Brant, a research assistant at Michigan State University studying sea lamprey management. There are no known instances of a Great Lakes lamprey attaching to a human, despite their growing population in the region.
If Approached: Be cautious when swimming long distances, as your body temperature can lower. Don’t try to pick one up because it will act defensively. “They get real mad but they don’t have a jaw, so their only defense when picked up is to swing around and desperately try to suck on to you,” Brant said. Even when they’re mad, they will likely only attach to you for a minute before they let go, he said.
Prevention: If a lamprey latches on to you it is pretty easy to detach. “Basically it’s like a suction cup on a window,” Brant said. “You pinch the sides around the mouth and it becomes unattached.”
They are smaller and wimpier than lampreys and more inclined to suck your blood. Nobody likes experiencing leeches, but other than drawing a few drops of blood they are relatively harmless to humans.
If approached: Try to pull it off. If it doesn’t come off easily you can burn it with a lighter or throw salt on it and it will shrivel — though the salt method should only be used in more critical situations.
Prevention: The best way to avoid them is to swim in an area that isn’t muddy or heavily vegetated.
It’s always exciting to see a bear when camping — but not always a good kind of excited. Black bears leave humans alone for the most part, said Russ Mason, chief of wildlife at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But if you see one during mating season (June or July) or with cubs trailing behind, watch out.
If approached: Back away slowly. Make a lot of noise and make yourself look as big as possible by standing on something high, waving your arms and opening your jacket if you are wearing one. Don’t climb a tree. Black bears are exceptional climbers!
Prevention: Keeping your campsite clean is the best prevention. When camping, always pick up garbage and food remnants and keep it in your car. Keep food out of reach or in your car. If you are backpacking, store food out of reach or in bear-proof sealed containers in your tent.
Mark Twain referred to coyotes as “living, breathing allegories of want.” They are really good at living with people, which is why their population is growing in urban areas.
If approached: Yell and make a lot of noise. Throw rocks at them, Mason said. You could also try the roadrunner sound (meep meep!). Coyotes hate roadrunners.
It is rare that coyotes attack people, but they do attack dogs and cats. “Every time you see a missing cat sign on a pole, 7 out of 10 were most likely eaten by coyotes,” Mason said.
Prevention: Leave them alone. “Around 60 percent of encounters with coyotes are because someone is feeding them or enticing them in some way,” Mason said. Keep your cats indoors!
Yes, that’s right. We have a few mountain lions in the Great Lakes region. Since they are difficult to track, it is hard to tell the region’s exact population at one time. Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have the highest sightings of cougars in the region. Beyond DNA evidence, there is no way to tell if multiple sightings equates to multiple cougars, said John Erb, wildlife biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Some are fit with tracking collars, but most registered sightings come from DNA evidence or photographs.
“They keep wandering probably because we don’t have a cougar population,” Erb said. Currently, there are less than 10 confirmed in the region, but there is no way of knowing the exact amount at one time. There are a lot more people that claim they’ve seen a cougar than people who actually have, Erb said.
If approached:Don’t run away. This can trigger its natural instinct to chase. Stay calm and back away slowly. Make a lot of noise and make yourself look as big as possible. Lucky for us cougars tend to avoid people, Mason said. They will almost never come after you if they are aware that you see them. This is because they rely on staying hidden to attack their prey.
Prevention:Not much is necessary to prevent a cougar attack because there aren’t many in the region!
We have a very low incidence of wolf attacks on humans. Some people in the region even keep them as pets, Mason said. Though it is not recommended to do so. They may look like Siberian huskies, but they definitely aren’t as cuddly.
If approached: Climb a tree. If there are no climbable trees around, make lots of noise and throw things at them.
Prevention: Don’t feed animals that wolves eat. The more deer you see, the more likely it is that you will see a wolf on the prowl, Mason said. When camping, keep your dog on a leash. Sometimes a dog running loose in a forest can lead unwanted predators right back to you. Pack food in sealed containers or hang it in garbage bags on a branch of a tree.
They may be cute from a distance, but if you catch a deer off guard or when their hormones are running high, they just might dropkick you in the face. Deer can be hard to read, so your best bet is to leave them alone, Mason said. The largest threat deer pose to people is on the road.
If approached: If you see a deer when driving, slow down and don’t swerve the wheel. Swerving into another car or a tree can be even more dangerous than hitting the deer. If you see a deer in the woods (and you aren’t there to hunt it), watch it from afar and don’t try to pet it. A deer may instinctually attack if you get too close and scare it.
Prevention: Don’t feed them. Admire Bambi from far away!
Raccoons are the bandits of the animal world — they love stealing your trash in the moonlight. Don’t be fooled by their small stature, they will scratch you in the face given the opportunity. Raccoons can carry rabies and parasites, which can make you very sick.
“They could carry a parasite that could kill a blue whale and still be bright-eyed and bushy tailed,” Mason said.
If approached: Raccoons tend to be skittish, so if you encounter one you should make a lot of noise and it will likely leave. If that doesn’t work, just walk in the opposite direction because it’s not worth the rabies.
Prevention: Make sure your garbage cans are sealed and not overflowing. Don’t feed one. It is like inviting the whole raccoon family over for dinner in your backyard.
Bee stings are always painful and sometimes deadly. While it is fairly common to get stung in the summer, there are many ways to avoid them.
If approached: Don’t panic and definitely don’t try to swat at them. The best way to react is to not react at all. They usually do not sting unless they feel threatened. If there is a group of bees just walk away slowly.
Prevention: When eating outside make sure to keep everything covered and throw away all garbage. Be careful when drinking out of cans or cups you can’t see into. Don’t walk outside barefoot. If you see a hive, keep your distance.
So what have you learned from our Great Lakes guide to avoiding animal attacks?
The take away should be to leave wild animals alone. In most cases, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
“Most negative animal encounters are because somebody did something stupid up front like feeding them, keeping them as a pet or doing something because they thought they were cute.” Mason said.
Click here to check out Hella Wella’s full illustrated survival guide for wild animal encounters.