When animals attack, and also when they don't

It's the time of year when animal-human encounters are on the rise. Bears are picnicking on hikers, moose are invading trailer parks, and muskrats are blamed for destroying entire towns. You could be next.
Crosscut archive image.

Bambi in South King County.

It's the time of year when animal-human encounters are on the rise. Bears are picnicking on hikers, moose are invading trailer parks, and muskrats are blamed for destroying entire towns. You could be next.

Let's look at animal trends in the Great Nearby for the summer of '08, including attacks, newly observed behaviors, and the menace of new species invading our turf and surf.

To begin, I recommend reading the overview of wildlife dangers provided by the Salt Lake Tribune, a handy guide to animal attacks for anyone in the West. It covers mauling critters from bears to skunks. One valuable tip: "If a bison looks like it might attack you, try to put something between you and the animal. Try to get to a place where you can avoid the head." Gee, who would have thought of trying to hide behind something when faced with an enraged buffalo?

Bison are not the only dangerous megafauna in North America. Everyone with a stock portfolio knows that it's the "Season of the Bear," and it's so bad even some of Wall Street's sharks are getting bit — including the guys at Bear Stearns.

But real, furry bears are chowing down as well, so your investment decisions aren't the only thing biting you in the ass. A mushroom hunter in Alaska recently discovered that her posterior was at risk when looking for edible fungi.

This week also saw the return of a trend that was popular last year. A young member of the Arctic Bicycle Club in Anchorage was attacked and gravely injured by a grizzly during a night time bike race there. Apparently, bears work all hours in the land of the midnight sun. The story carried yet another reason why wearing a bike helmet is a good idea, even in the woods:

The bear ripped off the girl's helmet and flung it in the woods, [cyclist Peter] Basinger said. [Bear biologist Rick] Sinnott said it was pocked with the bear's teeth marks. [Fire department spokesman Cleo] Hill said it probably saved the girl from further injury.

Bear bells on the bike, apparently, didn't work as a deterrent. But the story rings another kind of bell. You may remember that in 2007, there were at least two serious bear attacks involving mountain bikers, one in British Columbia and the other in Kitsap County, Washington.

Speaking of bears in Alaska, I remember talking with a hiker about what kind of gun would work against a bear and asked if a .357 magnum would provide protection. He said anyone seeking to protect themselves from an angry grizzly with a pistol should file off the gun site because that way, "it won't hurt so bad when the bear jams it up your ..." — well, you know. A bear hunter in Oregon seems to have learned that lesson the hard way.

It's tough to protect yourself against bears. In response to a fatal attack on a child last year in Utah, the U.S. Forest Service has invested in a new super-weapon: They've ordered up new brochures. I feel safer already. No word on how bears in Utah became such avid readers.

When bears aren't reading brochures, they're apparently dancing with wolves. Yes, not all inter-species encounters with bears are bad. New video footage shot in Montana shows wolves and bear cubs frolicking together, at least when Big Brother is watching.

Speaking of wolves, there's big news about them in Washington state, also caught on film. Authorities believe that for the first time since the 1930s, wolf packs are living in the state. Ground zero: the Methow Valley. The probably snuck into Twisp from Canada.

Most wildlife encounters are more mundane. This year, Spokane has been dealing with an unusual number of visiting moose wandering city streets. In South King County, a group of kids adopted "Bambi" and paraded around with a new-found fawn in a baby buggy. Luckily, they did not meet Godzilla.

Kids should be more careful. In Oregon, a mountain lion introduced itself to a couple of little girls, but Dad came to the rescue. Nevertheless, their story offers an education in animal behavior. The local sheriff gave this advice for folks who come across a non-human cougar:

"If they are acting aggressively, you know, coming toward you, you are seeing it in the middle of the daytime, it's chipping its teeth at you, growling, or taking an aggressive stance or something like that, then you'd be OK to go ahead and shoot and kill it," Kirk Meyer of Oregon State Police told the TV station.

Chipping its teeth? What the heck is that?

I contacted Tina Hamilton of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and she replied: "When a cougar is 'chipping its teeth,' it's actually snapping or chattering or popping its teeth and lips together to show aggression." I realized from the description that I'd seen my old Siamese cat do this when she was stalking a bird. So when a big cat goes all Sylvester, make like Tweety.

If only Canadian wolves and moose running amuck were our only invasion problems. There are two other animal menaces that are getting ink. Close to home, it's the proliferating nutria, a rodent named like an organic cereal. "Sally, eat your Nutria!"

This critter is a master of disguise, at least going by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In that story, it is variously described as a "a voracious herbivore as big as a large housecat and prone to molelike digging that turns lakeshores into Swiss cheese." They are also called "swamp rats" yet act "like wolves" and are often "mistaken for beavers or muskrat." So beware the cat-beaver-wolf-muskrat-rodent-mole!

Not to be outdone, muskrats immediately left their calling card. Burrowing muskrats caused a levee to collapse, inundating a county in Missouri. You want Swiss cheese? The muskrats'll show you Swiss-fricking-cheese!

At sea, another silent Northwest invader is the Humboldt squid. You're thinking, "great, more calamari," but researchers have documented brutal squid behavior:

"The Humboldt squid is a voracious predator that will eat anything it can get its tentacles on," [Oregon State University professor] Benoit-Bird says. "We put a pair of 10-pound squid into a tank and one immediately beheaded the other. These are fierce little beasts."

They're now living in Oregon waters, having moved north from California. They sound like the Hells Angels, with suckers. Or maybe academics. No word on whether a squid "chips its teeth" before an attack, but if they eat nutria they might be welcome.

Any survey of attacks should wind up with a summary of animal behaviors to keep in mind. One is that "chipping" cougars do sometimes bag a big one. In New Mexico recently, authorities documented a rare case of a man being killed and eaten by a mountain lion. On the other hand, you can rest easy about coyotes, which abound in Seattle. Coyotes rarely attack people. In fact, in Oregon, "the only documented 'attack' on a human was a provoked situation in which a man was bitten while attempting to beat a cornered coyote to death with a 2-by-4."

I like to think I'd have bitten the bastard too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.