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I've countless times heard things like this when they give tips for how to act when encountering a bear in the wild:

Play dead! Lie down and don't move an inch!

And (for all animals):

Don't run! It will just activate their hunting instinct!

And:

Never show your teeth! This makes them consider you to have challenged them!

But then I have also heard:

Make yourself appear big by standing high on your toes and holding out your arms wide! This will make the animal think that you are bigger and more powerful than it and not attack you!

Show your teeth while doing the above! It will make it scared of you!

These conflicting "hints" have utterly confused me to the point where I no longer have any clue what I should (or would) do if I ever encounter a bear or wolf or puma or wild cat of some sort or whatever animal might be found in the woods or wilderness.

Maybe I'd make myself appear big and the animal attacks me. Maybe I'd lie down and play dead and feel how it scratches up my back and bites my neck and eats me alive. I truly would have no idea how I should be acting, and if it varies depending on the animal, that's even worse.

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    You did not give a location, but I assume you are unconcerned about lions or hyenas in Africa because you mention bears, which are extinct there. There have been previous questions here and here. When hiking make enough noise to be heard – many creatures are dangerous only when surprised. – Weather Vane Aug 11 at 19:51
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    "How am I supposed to remember...?" I find it much easier to learn about the different animals rather than trying to memorize "stanalone instructions" what to do with which animal. Knowing more about them will allow the knowledge to "interconnect". A broader knowledge makes things more understandable and predictable. In any case, you need a certain level of understanding e.g. of their seasonal life to distinguish already low risk from high risk seasons. This also applies e.g. to moose who total more attacks on humans than bears and wolves combined in North America (claims Wikipedia). – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 17 at 11:40
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Before trying to memorize advice like this, it's probably better to ask yourself some realistic questions:

  1. Was any of this advice ever based on reliable evidence? (I suspect the answer is no.)

  2. Is the risk significant for any of these animals, in any area you're actually visiting? For example, WP says that there have been only 3 fatal wolf attacks in North America in the last 50 years.

  3. Would it be more appropriate to change your mind-set to one of being concerned for the well-being of the animal? Objectively, wild animals tend to be a negligible threat to modern humans, whereas human activity is a massive threat to many wild animal species.

  4. Does it make more sense to worry about about domesticated animals such as dogs than wild animals? Is your risk actually greater when you're in the city, because there are so many dogs there, and you spend so much more of your time there?

  5. Would it make more sense to focus on other ways of avoiding problems with animals, such as good food storage?

Most of the wildlife I encounter here in California, such as coyotes, bears, rattlesnakes, and bighorn sheep, are extremely shy and not at all aggressive. The last bear I saw took one look at me as I came around a corner and turned and ran in obvious terror up a steep hillside to get away from me. The last rattlesnake I saw was last week when I was hiking with my dog. The dog nearly stepped on its tail, but the snake simply continued slithering away into the bushes.

Rather than worrying about memorizing the kinds of fear-based advice you're talking about, I would suggest approaching this more in terms of leaning about wildlife, animal behavior, and natural history as a way of increasing your enjoyment of your outdoor activities. Seeing a wild animal is a special, rare treat. As you learn more about the animals that actually exist in the places you go, you'll get better at figuring out ways of making your interactions with them safe for them and for you.

As an example, there's a large, deserted open-space area near where I live that is a habitat for coyotes. I take my dogs walking there, often off the leash. As time went on, I learned more about coyote behavior. They tend to be active at dawn and dusk, so those are great times if you want to intentionally observe the animals, but I avoid walking through this area with my dogs off the leash at those times.

I also observed some behavior by the coyotes that scared me at first, until I understood what it was. They were sometimes following us for a long time, and I thought this meant they were stalking us or wanted to kill and eat my dogs. I later learned that this is a specific behavior they do during denning season, which is spring/summer. They have pups in their den, and they don't want anyone harming their pups. For this reason, they will follow an intruder to make sure he goes away, sort of like the mall cop escorting a troublemaker out of the mall. Although I think this behavior is actually nonthreatening, it's influenced me not to take my dogs there during denning season, because I don't want them having any kind of interaction at all with coyotes.

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    Was any of this advice ever based on reliable evidence? No, this is wrong. British Columbia has 2 types of potential conflict animals, bears and cougars. The advice for bears (appear less threatening, roll up) is the total opposite of that for cougars (scare it, fight back). Yes, the risks are negligible and can largely be mitigated by avoiding the animal in the first place and not surprising it, but generalizing that all these advices have no foundation and are useless, once you are in an actual attack situation, is just a plain bad answer. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 16 at 21:00
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Figure out which animals apply to your area and move on from there.

For each animal

  • how do you avoid it?

  • how do you avoid surprising it or giving it reasons to attack you?

a big part of this is surprisingly simple. don't attract bears with food odor, don't carry speared fish when in shark country.

The overall risk is very, very low however, keep that in mind.

Those should be the first big things to look into and they are specific to each animal type, so that's why you want to concentrate on the animals in your area rather than trying to figure out a rule for all animals.

Third, if they do go into threat mode or attack, what do you do?

Generally, in BC, Canada, the rule for bears is to avoid confrontation, back out slowly and roll up if they actually attack, covering your neck. A bear is hard to hurt, but is not a carnivore and not really interested in you, except for a mom defending her cubs. (That's not entirely complete, so I've added a bit at the end)

For cougars, it's the opposite. Appear big, wave a stick, possibly throw rocks. If it attacks, fight back. A cougar is a solitary carnivore, if it gets hurt it might starve if it can't hunt, so they will often back down. If it's attacking you, chances are it sees you as prey and your chance to be in that situation because you "surprised it" are low - they're very hard to spot and quite likely well aware of your presence.

Update: having just come back from Cape Scott, with lots of "You're in wolf country" warnings, posted by the park rangers, I can add that wolves here get the same recommendation as cougars: act big, frighten them away, fight back if attacked.

So, each animal has a particular set of best defense advice, but I am 100% in agreement with Ben Crowell that you're best off avoiding an attack situation rather than knowing the defense strategy, which has uncertain outcomes. Still, some quick research about the animals in your location should give some advice, specific to each animal.

Also, if you are still anxious, but want to enjoy the outdoors, you could, after first making sure you first know how to avoid conflicts, purchase a defensive device for the animal. Bear spray, maybe a hunting knife for cougars and a bangstick for sharks. If all fails, you can try your luck with it and it will make you feel safer and more in control the rest of the time. The key thing is that such a device is not an excuse from doing your very best to avoid conflict in the first place.

Finally, some animals are just generally best avoided by not getting into their territory at all, for example crocodiles.

(bears) There's a bit of debate about what to do with them. Mostly people agree not to antagonize them, but... Grizzlies are apparently pretty much never into eating you but can easily kill you without really aiming to. So, play dead. Black bears? Mostly same situation, but could possibly be a predatory bear, which is a very rare occurrence. So an option is to fight back if it keeps on attacking you. Honestly? Seems like if you'd ask 2 experts here you'd probably get 3 opinions about fighting back.

That really goes back to you figuring out the animals you are worried about. Grizzlies have a more limited range than black bears so may not be applicable to your area at all.

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Like most survival advice, you look at a lot of sources and determine what the experts say that you should do. Also look at what animals could be in the area. In many areas, the likeliest predator to encounter is a coyote and they are not known to attack people.

The only advice in your question that was different than the rest was playing dead. All the other pieces of advice were how to not look like prey. Most predators want to have an easy meal and don't want to chance getting hurt. Standing your ground, making yourself look big tells the animal that you are a bad-ass and not to be messed with. These pieces of advice usually come with remain calm and talk to it.

There aren't really that many animals that you need to think about this situation with. And you can sort them into the camps: play dead, and intimidate. So it isn't all that difficult to remember.

These situations are fairly rare and you should be taking other precautions to prevent them from happening. (Talking, wearing bells, walking with the wind at your back) Most animals know that people are bad news and not to be messed with. They will try to avoid encountering you anyway.

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While not directly answering your question, most actual contact between humans and wild animals are with smaller animals. In BC the problem animal is the racoon, followed by skunk.

I've had a bear nuzzled my tent. I yelled, and hit the nose bump with a cast iron skillet.

I have once encountered a bear that wouldn't back down. This was on the Churchill, on the approach to Otter Lake near Little Devil rapids on the He wasn't attacking us, but clearing wanted our food, and was flipping our canoes over. We eventually packed up and moved to an island. Bear bangers were ineffective. Found out later he was a problem bear, and later that summer was shot.

I have been 'attacked' once. Musk rat. I watched him come over the snow and he tried to climb my leg.

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