I think all of us have at one point in our lives asked the question, what would I do if I was attacked by a wild animal (fill in the type here)?  I remember once visiting Denali National Park and reading the brochure in the lodge room.  Run if attacked by a Brown Bear and freeze if attacked by a Grizzly.  Or was it the other way around???

The recent attack of an alligator dragging a two-year old to his death at Disney World made me think about this question once again. Do you run or fight? And if you fight, how best to fight and make a difference and ultimately save your life.

Safe distances depend on the animal. For example, a rattlesnake can spring a body-length or more from its coil, and should be given at least a six-foot berth. Give an alligator 50 to 60 feet and a bear not less than 30 yards and up to 50 if they have cubs.

How to respond to an encounter with a wild animal depends on which animal it is, as outlined in these species-specific responses to North American wildlife.


Alligators are found from North Carolina to Texas but are especially prevalent in Florida where, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they number 1.3 million and populate all 67 counties. Alligators prefer freshwater lakes and slow-moving rivers and their associated wetlands, but they also can be found in brackish water habitats.

The agency reports that alligator incidents are rare. From 1948 through April 2016, 383 people were bitten. Of those, 23 died. It advises not swimming between dusk and dawn, when the animals are more active. If an alligator does attack, fight back by hitting, kicking or poking it in the eyes. The commission recommends getting immediate medical attention, as alligator bites can result in severe infection.


Bears are usually a threat only when surprised or when they are protecting their cubs, situations that can occur when hikers are in remote areas. Rangers at Yellowstone National Park recommend hiking with bear spray, a pepper spray that inhibits a bear’s ability to see, smell or breathe.

To deter surprise encounters, the park recommends avoiding hiking at dawn, dusk or night, and making noise while walking along, such as periodically yelling out “Hey, bear!” especially when encountering blind corners or heading through brush. It also encourages visitors to hike in groups of three or more. Ninety-one percent of people injured by bears in Yellowstone since 1970 were hiking alone or with just one companion.

If you do encounter a bear at a distance, slowly back away. If you surprise one, do not run, as it may trigger a chase response from the animal. Slowly retreat, drawing your bear spray. If the bear charges, stand your ground and begin spraying it when it is 30 to 60 feet away. Only when it makes contact should you play dead to show that you are not a threat.

Fighting back during an attack only makes it worse. According to park statistics dating to 1970, those who fought back sustained very severe injuries 80 percent of the time. Those who remained passive received only minor injuries 75 percent of the time.


According to the nonprofit Mountain Lion Foundation, which is devoted to protecting the cats and their habitats, mountain lions are generally found in 14 Western states. Because they are solitary and hard to spot, population estimates are difficult, though the foundation believes there are fewer than 30,000 in the country.

Avoid hiking alone, or take bear or pepper spray along. If you are attacked, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, do not run, but stand tall and open your coat or raise your arms to look big. Maintain eye contact, slowly wave your arms, speak firmly and throw items at the mountain lion if necessary. Normally, the cat will move on.


Shark attacks are on the rise, according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, which tracks incidents worldwide. There were 98 shark attacks in 2015, surpassing the previous record of 88 set in 2000. Of those, the largest share, 59, took place in the United States.

To prevent a shark attack, the university research center recommends not swimming at dawn, dusk or night; not swimming where people are fishing, where fish are schooling or where seabirds are feeding; and not wearing shiny jewelry in the water. If you are attacked by a shark, pound it on the nose and scratch at its eyes and gills.