On The Run: What To Do When Animals Attack

Animal attacks can be as entertaining as being chased by an angry mother duck or as terrifying as being mauled by a bear...and everything in between.

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As the saying goes, the best way to avoid a bear attack is to make sure you run faster than your slowest friend. 

Come on, you know you laughed. 

But on a serious note, while it makes a hilarious joke and a potentially unfortunate situation for your slower friends, the truth is that animal attacks are something that endurance athletes—runners, cyclists, and swimmers alike—truly do have to consider as a real possibility. 

When it comes to running, we are exposed to a number of dangers. One of the more obvious ones, aside from distracted drivers, is encounters with wild and even domestic animals. Although we are conditioned to fear aggressive and territorial dogs, animal attacks don’t stop there. Personally, I’ve experienced everything from being chased by an angry goose to nearly tripping over a deer when rounding a blind corner. And although they are rare, attacks from animals such as bears, mountain lions, and coyotes are not unheard of.

As always, knowledge is power: Here are a few tips on how to prevent animal encounters and what to do if they happen. 

Avoid areas where aggressive animals are known to live. This is perhaps one of those “easier said than done” tips. But if you know of an area where, say, a mother bear and her cubs are known to frequent, avoid running there during cub season. Or more realistically, if you know of an area or neighborhood where people tend to let their dogs roam free—or worse, not care for their dogs—avoid running through that area.

If you see an animal from a distance, steer clear if possible. Many animals only attack if they feel you are a threat to themselves, their offspring, or their territory. Staying as far away as possible may limit the potential for an attack. Retreat slowly, if you can, and keep your eyes on the animal while you do so. If you must continue on your path, slow down and give the animal time to leave the area.

Do not panic. The saying that “animals can sense fear” is absolutely true. Panicking can let the animal know that you are vulnerable, and may provoke an attack. Stay as calm as possible.

Don’t run. If an animal does approach you, don’t run unless you are absolutely certain you can reach a safe spot almost immediately. You will not be able to outrun a dog, bear, mountain lion, etc. Instead, running will trigger the animal’s instinct to attack.

Tall and loud. For most animal encounters, instead of running, it is advised that you stand your ground. When it comes to dogs, experts agree that standing very still and acting “boring” will cause the dog to lose interest. When it comes to bears and other wild animals, oftentimes if you identify yourself as a human by standing tall and talking calmly, the animal will shy away. If the wild animal acts aggressively, try using a loud, firm voice, and throwing rocks or sticks at it to try to scare it away, especially in the case of bears or mountain lions. When it comes to dogs, however, waving or throwing items may instigate an attack. In any case, your voice must be firm, calm, and loud; any shrieking or sounds of fear can be sensed by the animal and may trigger an attack response.

If you are attacked: If you are attacked by a domestic dog, try your best to cover your head and face to prevent soft tissue damage. Remember, the dog will lose interest and may retreat. But if you are attacked by a bear, mountain lion, wolf, or any other wild animal, fight back with any possible method. In all instances, a product like mace, pepper spray, or bear spray may help ward off the animal. Continue to yell loudly and firmly for help. 

We cannot avoid doing the things we love simply out of fear, but we can take precautions to lessen the potential danger and educate ourselves about what to do if we encounter danger. Hopefully, any animal encounters you have will end up being as hilarious as the time I was chased by a goose. But if not, please keep these tips in the back of your mind, just in case.