Study finds risky human behaviour linked to increase in animal attacks

Grizzly Bear

After witnessing the recent “bear-selfie” trend, you might not be surprised to learn that people’s risky behaviour has contributed to a growing number of animal attacks across North America and Western Europe. At least that’s what a recent study by researchers at the University of Calgary found.

The study, which was published on Wednesday in Scientific Reports, focused on large carnivores such as bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes. The team of researchers, including bear expert Stephen Herrero, analyzed 700 large carnivore attacks since 1955. They found that “risk-enhancing human behaviour” was involved in at least half of the documented attacks.

What qualifies as “risk-enhancing behaviour”? The most common was leaving children unattended, but there was also walking an unleashed dog, searching for a wounded animal, approaching a female with her young, and participating in outdoor activities at twilight or nighttime. In fact, a man from Red Deer, Alberta was recently attacked by a great horned owl while cross-country skiing at night.

Although the increase in attacks was partially attributed to the growing number of people involved in outdoor activities, according to Herrero, many of the attacks could have been prevented.

“A lot of what people do is based on a total lack of knowledge about what is dangerous and what isn’t,” he told the Toronto Star. “Half of the attacks could have probably been avoided if people had done some pretty simple things. Hopefully this will motivate some people to smarten up.”

Educating the public about how to deal with wild animals will become increasingly important, as encounters like these are expected to grow, especially when it comes to species like polar bears.

According to the study, conflicts with polar bears have risen due to more tourists in northern regions, increased oil and gas development along the Arctic coastline, and decreasing ice cover driving hungry bears ashore.

There was also a notable increase in the number of coyote attacks over the years. In fact, of all the animals studied, wolves were the only ones that showed a decrease in attacks.

While Herrero acknowledges that we can never completely eliminate these situations, he says “we can certainly lower them from where they are presently.”

If you do find yourself in the presence of an aggressive animal, knowledge can be your best defence. Before heading outdoors, make sure you read these dos and don’ts for backcountry run-ins with wildlife.