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The adage goes that animals, for the most part, are more scared of humans than we are of them.
That’s mostly true, and a fact that should lower your anxiety over being eaten on a trail run. But there are exceptions. Mothers can be aggressive if they think you’re threatening their offspring; animals in the throes of scrounging for food might not hear you coming, be startled and react violently; and sometimes, an animal might act out-of-character and decide you’re worth hunting. (They’re wild animals, after all, and we can’t universally predict their behavior).
Those scenarios, particularly the last one, are extremely rare; you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving to the trailhead than consumed by a predator. But knowing how to traipse about another creature’s habitat can nonetheless keep you safer should an encounter occur.
Prevent an Encounter
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? Which is to say, if you take some measures to avoid startling an animal, you’re less likely to have to deal with an agitated mother moose or startled bear.
Know what kinds of animals live where you’re running—Grizzly country requires particular care—and be aware of your surroundings. In addition to all of that, don’t tread lightly. Animals will usually try to avoid an encounter and will scamper if they hear you coming well in advance.
Don’t wear headphones, and pay attention to noises like wind and streams that could make it difficult for animals to hear you coming.
If You Scare an Animal
If they occur, most encounters will still be with animals that would rather not interact with you. Black bears and moose, for instance, probably want their space, and an indication that you’re not a threat. “I calmly talk to them and back off their space,” says Foote, whose Missoula, Montana home base is in Grizzly territory. “That’s always worked. They are almost always just as uninterested in messing with me as I am with them.”
Sometimes, animals will take more of an interest in you than you’d like. This can be especially true if you stumble upon a sow and her cubs or calves; it can also be true if you see a mountain lion, whose keen senses likely mean it saw you long before you saw it, and it chose to approach you.
Across the board, if an animal attacks you, use whatever means you can—even a nearby rock—to fight it off; if you can, roll over to protect your vital organs, arteries and face. But first, try to avoid a surprise encounter by making plenty of noise on the trail; with the exception of Grizzly bears, there are typically ways to dissipate the situation without being attacked. But remember that they are wild animals, and even the below tips won’t guarantee a peaceful resolution.
Be preventative by making some noise on the trail; talk with other runners, or even to yourself; sing out loud or shout occasionally. (Don’t listen to headphones.)
If you encounter a black bear, you make yourself bigger; shout and act aggressively. Typically, this will scare the bear off. However, if the bear is with cubs, take the opposite approach: talk calmly, avoid eye contact and back away slowly.
Moose might be herbivores, but they’re big and can inflict a lot of damage. As Foote indicated above, make it clear you are not a threat; back away slowly, and don’t make any movements that are sudden or could be interpreted as aggression.
Cougar encounters can be trickier to navigate, since their keen senses typically mean they saw you long before you saw them; like house cats, they like to stalk. Also like house cats, they can be skittish. Making yourself big and threatening, with lots of shouting, can scare them off; running away will likely lead them to chase you. If you are attacked, fight back. Avoid running alone at dawn or dusk to minimize the chances of an encounter.
We’ve made a few mentions of grizzlies occupying a special place on the list of dangerous wildlife. That’s because, where most other animals might back down from a fight with a human, grizzlies seem fully aware of their relative size and strength compared to us, and will more often engage.
That’s not to say grizzlies seek out conflict or encounters. Most incidents with grizzly bears occur when someone startles a bear, or stumbles upon a mother and her cubs. But unlike many other animals, they won’t usually balk if you act aggressively.