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Assessing the human factor in animal attacks

Study finds half of reported attacks by large carnivores the result of risky human behaviour


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A new study by a team of international researchers found that around half of the attacks by large carnivores reported in North America and Europe over the past 60 years could be pinpointed to risky human behaviour.

The report, published Feb. 3 in the online academic journal, analyzed close to 700 documented attacks by bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes between 1955 and 2015. In about half the cases, researchers said "risk-inducing human behaviours," like unleashed pets, leaving children unattended — the No. 1 risk factor — or approaching a mother with her young, were to blame.

"I think it's very important that we have demonstrated that half of these attacks have resulted from our wrong behaviour in the field in natural areas," explained University of Oviedo researcher Vincenzo Penteriani. "Because it also means we have possibilities to reduce these attacks."

The factors behind the remaining half of attacks were linked to what Penteriani said was just plain "bad luck" in many cases, like surprising an animal at close range or while it is feeding. Animal habituation to human food — an issue that continues to plague Whistler — was another cause highlighted in the study, although Penteriani said it was difficult to quantify how big a role it played.

While attacks by large carnivores on humans remain rare — and often get blown out of proportion in the media, researchers said — the study noted that the number of attacks has "increased significantly" over the past few decades. In fact, wolves were the only species in the report to show a decreasing trend, with only two or three attacks per decade starting in 1985 compared to 10 attacks between 1975 and 1984.

Researchers chalked the rise in attacks in large part to increasing human and animal populations, compounded by the growing popularity of outdoor leisure activities bringing people closer to wildlife.

"We're spending more time out in the backcountry, and especially in the Sea to Sky corridor, the number of people using the backcountry with skills and without skills has drastically increased, so the number of attacks is likely to increase as well," said Tim Schumacher with the Conservation Officer Service (COS).

Education remains the key strategy for curbing the incidents of attack, Penteriani stressed, especially so in urban areas where residents may not consider proper wildlife management as a top priority.

"Information is crucial," he said. "Information is not solely important in natural areas, it's important in towns and in big cities because many people living there are potential tourists of these natural areas."

What's more is the rapid urbanization of societies means city dwellers are coming in contact more often with large carnivores that have been forced to learn how to adapt to living on the outskirts of urban centres. It's part of the reason why researchers noted "a remarkable increase" in coyote attacks in North America. In all, coyotes accounted for 31 per cent of all attacks in North America over the study period, while cougars were responsible for 25.7 per cent, followed by brown bears at 13.2 per cent, black bears at 12.2 per cent and wolves at 6.7 per cent.

For Ellie Archer, director of community outreach for the Whistler Get Bear Smart Society, it's important that people are not only aware of the appropriate behaviour around wildlife, but that they carry a deeper understanding of the animals living among us, a goals she strives for every time she takes groups on one of her guided bear tours for the Tweedmuir Park Lodge in Bella Coola.

"If you're fearful of these animals through not understanding them, everything they do will become a threat to you," she said. "I'm not sure how a person can consider the overall safety of humans without understanding... the potential of the being that is across from you. I think understanding these animals and their actions is essential."

Although the COS was unable to provide confirmed statistics, Schumacher recalled only a handful of attacks in the Sea to Sky by large carnivores in recent years, including a 2009 cougar attack on a young girl in Squamish that resulted in minor injuries, a 2012 incident involving a black bear swatting a man in a Whistler hot tub, and another cougar attack from last summer when a Pemberton farm owner had her finger punctured while trying to protect her 10-week-old puppy.

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