Wildlife encounters should be undertaken with safety in mind
By Shelley Widhalm
For Colorado residents, an encounter with wildlife is a common and often daily experience, from squirrels in the backyard to bears in the back country.
“The best advice is to give them space, because safe distances are critical to minimizing dangerous situations with wildlife,” said Lauren Truitt, statewide spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Wild is wild. Their natural instinct is for protection and survival.”
Wrong perceptions about wildlife can come from animated films, which depict animals as cuddly and docile, and the fact that animals can appear cute, but still are wild, Truitt said. “Keep wildlife wild and in their natural habitat,” adding the wildlife still can be enjoyed. “We encourage people to enjoy wildlife. That’s the special part of being in Colorado.”
Larger wildlife demand more respect than the smaller animals, but even squirrels can bite or attack if provoked, and any number of animals can carry diseases, Truitt said.
“They are just bigger and can act aggressively if they have young or food sources nearby or during the mating season especially. The males during mating season are extremely aggressive.”
As a general rule, Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends using common sense when spotting wildlife and, if desired, taking photographs from the safety of the home or a vehicle, using a telephoto lens, and avoiding taking selfies close to the animal. Getting that close to the animals, or turning away from them can be dangerous, since they can turn aggressive within seconds.
“You definitely don’t want to take off running,” said Josh Embrey, town forester for the Town of Berthoud. “Keep your composure, stand your ground, and avoid direct eye contact.”
Animals can sense fear, which can be detected in a person’s eyes, and predator animals are more aggressive if they sense that fear and will give chase, too, if “prey” runs, Embrey said.
“The biggest thing is that we have a lot of different types of animals in Colorado because we have the mountains,” said Sgt. Jim Anderson, Berthoud police chief through the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office. “We have to realize any time we go out, we’re in their territory. We have to be aware there are animals that can attack, and they can and will attack. We’re going out into their territories, their homes.”
Anderson recommends making noise before encountering any kind of animal, alerting the animal of a human presence.
“They’ll hear you coming,” Anderson said. “Most of the times they’ll go away from that. They don’t want to mess with you.”
Truitt has additional recommendations for wildlife encounters, including keeping pets, especially small dogs, on leashes, which can become prey for large animals or provoke defensive reactions in animals of all sizes. She also recommends not leaving trash out or feeding animals, which encourages them to approach the food sources, become more reliant on humans, lose some of their survival skills, and alter their dietary needs.
Different types of animals require different approaches to maintain safety, Truitt said.
For instance, mountain lions will run after their prey, making the best response looking as large as possible, slowly backing away from the animal and never turning the backside. Also, be loud and speak forcefully to the animal, or bang on something to show authority, making you appear higher in the pack.
“Wildlife really doesn’t want to be around people. They have a natural flight-or-fight response, as we do,” Truitt said.
Anderson recommends slowly raising your arms and waving them.
“You watch them. You make eye contact with them and don’t run. Don’t bend over, crouch down or lay down,” Anderson said. “Start throwing things at them. … As you’re doing all of this, you want to create distance between you and the lion.”
Unlike cats that startle from loud noises, bears need a different approach that involves talking quietly, and slow movements, Anderson said. Bears are docile by nature and rarely will attack but can become dangerous and powerful if provoked.
“Back away very slowly,” he said. “Walk. Don’t ever run. Watch the bear as long as you can. If he does run after you, he will run faster than you. Go to the ground, and don’t move, but you’ll probably get hurt.”
As with mountain lions, Anderson recommends arm waving for bears, as well as hiking in groups to appear larger, and carrying bear pepper spray.
“Let the bear recognize you as human,” Anderson said. “They’re scared of humans. Usually if a bear stands, they are more curious than threatening. Just stay calm. Most bears don’t want to attack you. They want to be left alone.”
For other animals like elk, moose and deer, particularly the males during rut, or the mating season, keeping distance is important, Truitt said. The males can attack with their antlers, which are extremely sharp, and the females will kick in response to approaches near their young.
Embrey recommends fighting back by grabbing — with the males, grab their antlers and poke the animal in the eyes and ears, and with the females, grab their legs. Even more important is keeping distance.
“It’s ideal to try to hide behind an object, whether it’s a tree or car or anything along that line,” Embrey said.
Other animals, like coyotes, typically will run from human encounters, according to Anderson. “They’re not so much going to attack you unless you force them. Small children and small pets should be protected from them.”
As for bobcats, appearing larger and making noise is the best approach, Anderson said.
“You are your own safety. If you make stupid decisions … stuff can happen.”
Bobcats are timid of humans, so encounters with them are rare, Embrey said. He recommends a technique called hazing, which involves being vocal and waving something like a water bottle or piece of clothing to prevent the animal from approaching. Hazing works for other animals too, including smaller, nocturnal animals that are more timid of humans.
“If you’re going to be in a natural area, you should always inform people where you’re going to be and what time you’re expected to be back,” Embrey said.
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