The number of attacks on humans by large carnivores has increased significantly during the last few decades for almost all large carnivores.
The number of attacks on humans by large carnivores has increased significantly during the last few decades for almost all large carnivores.
Attacks by large carnivores on humans have been on the rise throughout the western world. Bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes have increasingly been involved in deadly maulings and injuries, with the number of attacks nearly doubling since 1994. However, a new study out in Nature shows that it's actually humans who are often putting themselves in harm's way.

The study, which took human risk factors into account, found that, "an increasing number of people are involved in outdoor activities and, when doing so, some people engage in risk-enhancing behaviour that can increase the probability of a risky encounter and a potential attack."

With humans encroaching into wildlife areas, and wildlife adapting to urban areas, the likelihood of having to share our spaces with large carnivores has increased. With this reality, the simple act of not knowing how to coexist with these animals is causing increased fear, an increased risk of attack and, sadly, retribution killings.

The main risk factor humans engage in, which easily beat out all others, were children being left unattended by their parents. This left children susceptible to attacks, especially from cougars. Other activities which showed increased risk included walking a dog unleashed, searching for wounded carcasses during hunting expeditions, walking or running through wilderness areas during twilight and perhaps the most obvious of them all: approaching a new mother with her young offspring.

However despite the recent increase in attacks, the study does point out that fatal encounters between wildlife and humans are often over hyped by media - which often show shocking reenactments of deadly encounters with wildlife. Humans, they say, are far more likely to fall victim to spiders, snakes, domestic dogs or bees than a large bear.

Still with carnivores and humans interacting more now than ever before, it's important that we know exactly how to handle these encounters.

How to stay safe

When encountering a bear, the main goal is not to surprise it. Bears will often avoid humans if they know they're coming. For this reason, making noise as you walk through bear country can be a lifesaver. For instance, some people like to sing or clap while walking on a trail.

If you do happen upon one, remaining calm, backing up slowly and putting a good distance between you and the bear is necessary. Bear spray is also a good deterrent but should only be used during aggressive approaches. In the worst case scenario, when a bear attempts to make contact, playing dead is often your best bet.

When it comes to cougar country - which includes plenty of urban areas - it's also important to make noise as you walk. If you happen upon one in your neighborhood or in the woods, ensure it has a way to escape. A cornered animal is always a dangerous animal.

Cougars who are stalking or making aggressive movements should be dealt with aggressively. Making yourself appear larger, baring teeth, making noise and keeping eye contact is likely your best bet. And if this one attacks, don't play dead. Fight back hitting its weakest points, including the eyes and nose with sticks, rocks or even just your fists.

Coyotes have an interesting relationship with our evolving environment, with many able to live and thrive in large cities. The most important thing to do is let a coyote be a wild animal. Feeding, attempting to chase or engage a coyote might lead to future behavioral problems, which could result in animal control having to put down the animal. Most are skittish and will run away if they see a human. However, if they begin to approach, growl or bark. It's important to take an aggressive posture, throwing stones, sticks and appearing as a threat.

And finally wolves, which are the most elusive of all large carnivores, with only two fatal attacks ever occurring in North America. If approached by wolves (or just one wolf) remember to stay calm, look the animal in the eye, and back away slowly. As skilled pack hunters it is important never to run from a wolf, as it makes you look like enticing prey. And do consider that most wolves who approach humans are habituated by humans who feed them, so keep your hands far away from the creature.

The most important thing that we can do, as we learn to share our spaces with large carnivores, is to just let them be. Give them space, be careful with your pets and never leave small children unattended in areas where carnivores are known to exist. These are just small steps, but have the potential to greatly reduce attacks on humans by large carnivores, ensuring we can continue to share the wilderness without fear.