Animal attacks happen. Whether you’re hiking in 75 acres of old growth forest, visiting a local zoo, or even walking down the street in your own neighborhood. From bears, to a friend’s dog—animals can be unpredictable and it’s important that we remember how to best interact with them.
In wake of the most recent attack at the Wildlife World Zoo in Arizona, it can never hurt to be reminded that wild animals, even in captivity, are still wild. On Saturday, March 9th a woman violated the zoo’s primary concrete barrier to take a “selfie” with the facility’s 4-year-old female jaguar. With only the secondary steel bar fencing between the woman and big cat, the jaguar was able to reach a paw out and claw the woman’s arm. A jaguar’s claws can be over 2” long and are extremely sharp. With humbling strength, an adult male jaguar can weigh over 300 pounds and has the strongest jaws of any other cat species. The bite of an adult cat comes down with 2,000 pounds of force, enough to easily crush bones. Luckily in the case of the Arizona woman, she returned home safely with just a few stitches in her arm. As for the jaguar, she was spared her life due to the woman’s provocation. But sadly, cases like this oftentimes must end in expiration of the animal.
Take the infamous Harambe for example. Harambe was an impressive silverback gorilla resident at The Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed in his own exhibit in May 2016 after a toddler slipped through the zoo’s exhibit barrier. Rousing expected criticism from all angles, the zoo has since remodeled their gorilla exhibit and now has more extensive fencing that includes netting and surveillance cameras. While still alarming, these animal attacks and encounters are not a recent anomaly.
From citizens of the public to wildlife professionals, humans have pushed their boundaries with wild animals in many circumstances. Take the well-known Siegfried and Roy, entertainers of the 90’s who performed and trained with full grown adult lions and tigers for an audience. In 2003, Roy Horn was bitten on the neck and dragged by one of their white tigers. In 2006, the beloved Crocodile Hunter, a greatly respected conservationist of the time, was killed by a stingray off the coast of Queensland Australia. In 2016, a Yellowstone National Park tourist put a bison calf into the back of his van inevitably leading to its death. In 2018, a South Carolina Zoo Intern was killed by a male lion during routine enclosure cleaning rounds—she was 22 years old. And just recently, a Colorado trail runner fought off a cougar attack at Horsetooth Mountain and survived.
So, what do all of these freak (or not so freak) accidents mean? While it is sometimes easy to point fingers at who or what exactly caused these horrific events, it is not a time to criticize and berate the zoos, centers, or seemingly careless public, but rather a time to really reflect on how we are currently respecting these magnificent creatures and how we can improve. Whether domestic, captive, or wild, there are still plenty of ways to interact and enjoy animals without putting yourself or the creature in any kind of danger. Here are a few recommendations of how to enjoy different kinds of animals in different settings in a safe manner:
For wildlife in National Parks, Preserves, or your own backyard: According to the National Park Service, it is recommended that you stay at least 100 yards (300 feet) away from any large carnivore, such as bears and wolves, and a minimum of 25 yards (75 feet) from all other wildlife, including deer, elk, bison, birds of prey etc. While these are the recommended minimums, it is always a good idea to maintain even more space depending on the species and its surrounding environment. If you believe an animal is in danger, contact a local ranger or professional to come investigate. The general rule is that if you cause an animal to move—you’re too close! Bring binoculars to get a closer look and always pay attention to your surroundings. If you are hiking in the backcountry, be aware and know that you are entering their territory now.
For captive encounters such as zoos, nature centers, or aquariums: The most important thing to remember when interacting with and viewing animals in a captive setting is that you are a guest in their area and home. Respect the barriers put in place by staff and read all the signs. These barricades are meant to keep yourself and the animals safe. Do not attempt to feed or “get closer” to the animals in these settings. Just like us, they also require personal space and boundaries. Most importantly, just be respectful of the facility’s rules and the animals that reside there.
For domestic livestock or pets: Maybe the least concerning category but also the most common—domestic pets. Always ask before petting a stranger’s animal. From dogs and cats to horses and pigs. Not only is this polite, but it is the safest way to approach a pet that is unfamiliar with you. This animal may prefer to be held or pet in a certain way and asking the owner first ensures that you are getting all the right information about how they may respond to your actions.
As beautiful as they are, always remember to respect an animal’s boundaries. Ask questions if you have concerns or curiosities, and admire them from a distance no matter where you are.
Have you ever witnessed someone interacting with an animal in an unsafe way? Did you say anything?
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