Spend enough time in the woods and you will, at some point, encounter wildlife. Fortunately, dangerous encounters are extremely rare. In fact, you're more likely to run into a family dog gone ballistic than a bear or a cougar.
Other than some large cats, backcountry animals in North America are neither overtly aggressive nor predatory towards people. You won't find animals tracking humans then exchanging high fives after they sack one. No. An animal's motivation for attacking a human is usually out of a perceived fear for its life or the life of its young. The line called fear is where you can win the war with an attacking animal. Your calm mind and your knowledge of animal behavior are valuable assets.
There is a good way to deal with dogs. Use doggie psychology to counter the defensive pet.
Dogs are usually defending their territory when they act aggressively. The most common circumstance, then, is when you are riding along some property and the loyal mutt decides to give chase as you ride by. Again, you may be tempted to outrun the animal, but a dog will try to bite your ankle and may get caught up in your spokes, injuring both you and the dog.
Don't play around with an excited, defensive dog. Come to an abrupt and sudden stop—as safely as is possible. As you get off your bike—with the bike between you and the dog—shout "Go home!" or "No!" and point down the way from which the dog came. It's important that you establish as quickly as possible that you are the dominant party (known in doggie parlance as the Alpha) and that you will not tolerate this behavior.
Be very confident. You are the human; this is the mutt, bred for thousands of years to serve humans. The dog has likely heard these commands before or will understand the body English. Nine times out 10, this will at least stop the dog, and it may even send it trotting back home. Nevertheless, continue walking forward with the bike between you and the dog. In most cases, the dog will start to behave.
If a dog does attack—and again, this is very rare—some pepper spray will likely do the trick. If you don't have spray, don't reach for your bike pump. The more effective weapon is the bike itself. Keep it between you and the dog, fending the dog off as if the bike were a shield.
If you do get bitten, try to find the owner of the dog. Clearly, a dog that will attack humans without provocation needs to be quarantined. If you can't find the owner, you may have to go through a series of rabies shots. Treat even light bites with antibiotic ointment.
The cyclist is usually the one at fault when an animal gets scared. Picture it. Here's some old black bear, hunting for berries and grubs when suddenly the flash of sun on metal and the sound of tires interrupt its rummaging. If it doesn't spot an immediate escape, it may believe it is trapped. And no creature likes to feel trapped.
Your job, then, is to calmly allow the bear time to gather its wits and escape. This is tougher than it sounds. Your first reaction is the flight-or-fight syndrome. You want to avoid confrontation as much as the bear. The urge is strong to slam those pedals and spit flames from your tires to escape. Resist it. In most cases a bear can outrun you.
Instead, come to a stop. Start talking in a calm, clear voice. Talk about the nice bear and how you're sorry for interrupting its snack time. Get off your bike and position it between you and the bear. Either hold your position or start slowly backing away. Most black bears are happy to retreat quickly.
In some cases, the bear will rise up on its hind legs. This allows the bear to see and smell you better. A bear's sense of smell is one of the most acute in the animal kingdom, estimated to be 100 times more powerful than a dog's. Their eyesight has long been regarded as very poor, but that opinion is changing. It's a good bet that if you can see a bear, it can see you.
If the bear stands, just keep talking and keep backing away. If you can move uphill, do so. This gives the bear more opportunity to escape, as it will choose the path of least resistance.
In still rarer cases the bear may lay back its ears, lower its head, make a "woofing" sound and open its jaws. It will look like a noseguard getting ready to sack the quarterback. It could be that you have come between the bear and her young. Bears sometimes make bluff charges. Stand your ground; don't "play dead" with a black bear. Don't run.
Having your bike between you and the bear is still the best idea and can serve as a last line of defense. If the bear approaches, shout, make noise, stand tall, throw small rocks. If it makes contact, fight back vigorously. Ideally, you can give the bear enough room so it will leave before your confrontation escalates to this point.
Note: When possible, ride in a group in active bear country. Numbers will intimidate a bear.
It is not advisable to ride mountain bikes in grizzly country. Bikes cover ground quickly and quietly, meaning you could encounter a grizzly in a swift and startling manner. Such a meeting is a grave error in grizzly territory.
A startled grizzly can quickly turn into an aggressive grizzly. If you must ride where grizzlies are active, avoid riding solo. In addition, control your speed on routes with lots of twists and turns, and make noise as you enter turns. Some riders will attach a small cowbell to their bikes so they make plenty of noise.
If the bear rushes you, don't fall down until actual contact is made. If you do have to play dead, don't curl up in a fetal position. Instead, lie face down with your hands behind your neck and make your center of gravity low. This can save your life. The bear may paw you and even gnaw on you a bit, but it will likely leave you alone after it gets the idea that you're no threat.
Cougars, mountain lions and panthers are aggressive predators and will attack humans if provoked. However, they are generally smaller than humans—and can be scared away. Again, you have something most animals don't have—a voice. Use it. Start yelling, growling, screaming and acting generally insane. Lift your bike over your head and stomp your feet. Make yourself as big and menacing as possible. Look the cat directly in the eye and don't let it intimidate you. The cat will generally start looking for an escape and then run away.
One young Western Washington man did wrestle with a mountain lion and won. But then, he was a champion high school wrestler and the cat never had a chance. Therefore, we don't advise this course of action.
Geese, and especially swans, can ruin a day at the park. They can bite so hard that they can break bones. Geese and swans will generally attack only if provoked or if their goslings are threatened. Simply enjoy them from a reasonably safe distance and you'll be fine.
If one does attack, it will be fast and you'll have little time to react. But a lowering of the head with the wings spread somewhat out and back will indicate the bird is about to attack. Again, use your bike as a shield if possible. If not, now is the time to practice your flight defense. Run or ride away as quickly as possible.
Left undisturbed, snakes are not confrontational creatures. But if you surprise one, you'll know it. Rattlers usually announce their irritation with a menacing rattle, but even copperheads and other snakes will raise their heads up and face you. This is the snake saying, "Back off!" and you would do well to obey that command. If you're very close to the snake, jump away and keep moving back. A snake can only jump the length of its body—usually no more than three feet. Most adults can clear this distance with one jump.
If the snake is between you and your path home and you can't find another way around, you have one option: Wait. If you are a safe distance away you can simply sit there, watch the snake and wait for it to move along. It's a good time for a sip from the water bottle or a bite of your energy bar. If time is pressing you can try throwing rocks or sticks in the snake's general direction. But don't try to hit the snake— that will just make it angry and provoke an attack. Instead, place your throws so that you herd the snake toward some obvious exit. That should send the snake scrambling.
As with the animals above, your best bet is always to back away and give the creature space. This goes for skunks, beavers, elk and so on. With a calm mind and a cautious approach, you can avoid dangerous situations and enjoy the wildlife.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 10/05/2012
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