When visiting areas with free-roaming wildlife such as American Bison and Texas Longhorns, there are numerous signs warning about keeping a safe distance. They don't, however, actually specify the safe distance.

While I would normally steer clear (pun intended) of predatory animals such as wolves, bears, etc, I would love to photograph some of these large herbivores. However, they can be very protective when threatened:

Though they can appear peaceful and unconcerned, their temperament is unpredictable, and can respond quickly when disturbed. ... Females are very protective of their young, and can become aggressive if threatened.

Is there a general rule or recommended safe distance for non-predatory animals, such that they don't feel threatened?

  • 2
    Random data point: There are (non-indigenous) bison on Catalina Island, which has a trail system running from one end of the island to the other. I hiked the trail, and tried to follow advice to keep a certain distance from the bison, but it just wasn't possible sometimes, because there wasn't enough room. They basically just looked at me as I walked past.
    – user2169
    Dec 9, 2015 at 5:32
  • The signs are there so they can say "told to to keep a safe distance, clearly you didn't". As such, no one will tell you even if they know. The other problem, safe is not an absolute, and Usain Bolt probably has a smaller distance than my Great Grandmother. While 10 meters might be safe if there are trees or fences close buy, if there is nothing to hide behind for 1000meters it is probably unsafe.
    – user5330
    Dec 9, 2015 at 7:19

1 Answer 1


Each species and possibly even each individual animal will behave very differently. A good rule of thumb is: if wildlife reacts to you, you are too close. I think this is the most general way to answer you question and has the benefit of giving you instantaneous feedback. If the animal looks straight at you, back off until it resumes what it was doing.

The motivation behind this is the following: If an animal reacts to a human, it is likely to be stressed. A common reaction to stress is to flee. Either the animal is unable to flee, which will increase the stress which can make the animal sick if it happens frequently, or it takes off and wastes precious energy in the process, possibly leaving a juvenile behind.

  • 3
    I've already upvoted your answer, and now want to add: thanks for putting the emphasis on the animal's welfare in your answer. I don't mean that I am indifferent as to whether Chris M gets trampled or not, far from it, but that the dangers from us to the animal are usually put second, if at all.
    – ab2
    Dec 9, 2015 at 19:59

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