How to Survive an Animal Bite

Ever been out traveling or an a wild adventure when you felt, all of a sudden, like you were no longer at the top of the food chain? Here, experts explain how to avoid becoming lunch.

    Photo: ImNotQuiteJack/Flickr

Rattlesnakes are one of many venomous snakes in the world. A fellow Texan and literary friend of mine, Tandy Versyp, was bitten on the ankle by this particular poisonous snake in Hawley, Texas, while smoking a cigarette at night. “When I got inside I could see puncture wounds and a little blood. A little over an hour had passed before I got to the emergency room. My foot was discolored, swollen and in a lot of pain. They gave me anti venom and plasma ... and later steroids.” Tandy spent two weeks alone in hospital recovering from the bite: Rattlesnake venom thins the blood and the slightest injury can mean trouble.

Foreknowledge, common sense and awareness are the keys to preventing an animal attack. When it comes to wild animals, particularly the top predators, the best method of choice is to steer clear. Here’s a simple list of the critters you’re most likely to get bitten by—and what to do when the worst happens.

RACCOONS
For the most part, raccoons (native to North America but also found in mainland Europe and Japan) are harmless, sneaky, sometimes pesky and noisy, nocturnal creatures. They are usually passive in nature when in the presence of humans. But, if there is food, trash or small unattended animals lingering around, raccoons are likely to intrude.

They do not eat humans, but that does not mean raccoons won’t bite or attack you, provoked or unprovoked. Small pets and children can be severely harmed by a raccoon, if not killed. Usually, a raccoon attack consists of scratch marks, cuts or small puncture marks. In a worst-case scenario, they may rigorously claw and tear at your skin.

If a raccoon attacks you or your pet, you must seek immediate medical attention, as raccoons are notorious for harboring the rabies virus. Victims of a raccoon bite almost always need medical treatment.

SPIDERS
BBC News wrote an article in October 2008 stating: “Exotic species of spiders are making their homes in the UK. ... Researchers believe arachnids arriving in imports of food and plants are now able to survive and spread thanks to the UK’s increasingly mild climate. The new inhabitants include a species of false widow spider and some believe the deadly black widow could be next to invade.”

Read up on spiders as you move to different geographical destinations. If you are bitten by a spider and you notice inflammation, red welts, scabbing, a violent rash or experience intense itching, burning or bleeding that does not desist after a couple of hours, seek medical attention. Some people have extreme allergic reactions to spiders (black widow, garden spider or brown recluse) and need medical aid, whereas others can heal their bites with over-the-counter medicine.

WOLVES, FOXES & WILD DOGS
Healthy, well-fed wolves, dogs and foxes that live in the wild rarely attack humans. Generally these mammals will run away at the sight of you. Typically the only time of true danger is when they are traveling in packs: power in numbers. But wolves are not the animals you should fear the most.

According to Ron Berman, D.A.B.F.E. (Diplomate American Board of Forensic Examiners), “The most dangerous of the three are wild dogs in a pack. To my knowledge there has never been a documented incident of a human being attacked by—or killed by—wolves ... at least in the United States. A single wolf or wild dog would most likely run from a human. I have seen wild dogs on the plains of east Africa fighting with each other over a kill and it was scary even though we were safely in our car.”

Wolves, foxes and wild dogs differentiate in size, behavior and physical/physiological differences. Nonetheless, all these wild animals, particularly wolves, communicate through various kinds of behaviors and forms of body language. Unfortunately, wolves are an endangered species. The oldest breed of wolf is the grey wolf but red foxes have overtaken grey wolves as the most widespread canines in the wild.

Attacks on humans by wolves or foxes are thankfully rare. Wild dogs can be more dangerous. And when these attacks occur they are generally not lethal or permanently detrimental to the body. Most fatalities caused from the bite of a wolf, fox or wild dog are almost always related to rabies. It is imperative to seek immediate medical attention if bitten.

Wherever the destination, travelers should read up on the behaviors of the local wolves, foxes and wild dogs to get a familiarity of their nature, instinctive responses and how to act around one. Travelers should not be consumed with fear when crossing paths. Be alert for packs or if any animals are following your tracks. Remain conscientious that these animals could strike and it‘s best to stay out of their way; away from their packs, especially the cubs. Normally, if you do not mess with these animals, then they will not bother you.

BADGERS
Badgers are also considered harmless, but on May 14, 2003, Briton Michael Fitzgerald was bitten by one. Fitzgerald was outside his home in Evesham when he discovered a badger in his garage. The animal latched on to his arm and tore up Fitzgerald’s skin so horribly he needed skin grafts: his internal tendons, nerves and muscles were hanging out.

It was later thought this badger had experienced aggressive human contact before, as this was unusual behavior. After this specific attack, the National Federation of Badger Groups advised that people no longer kept badgers as pets. The organization also said if people insisted on feeding badgers, to keep it to a minimum to avoid the animals growing too dependent on that food source. And never feed them by hand.

SNAKES
In a recent study published in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, it was estimated that each year there are 421,000 venomous snake bites and 20,000 fatalities from snake bites worldwide. Not all snakes are venomous though. Travelers cannot always judge the lethal nature of a snake’s venom by its color or size. Realistically, out of the several thousands of species of snakes on the globe there are only a few hundred venomous ones. The worldwide list of species, names and kinds of venomous/non-venomous snakes is endless. Most lethal bites occur in tropical areas. Fortunately, with the help of anti-venom and modern medicine, it is possible to recover from a toxic bite.

Snake venom is a modification of saliva; a mixture of proteins and enzymes produced by glands. Venomous snakes carry different kinds of toxins and each toxin has a varying negative effect: hemotoxins (causes internal bleeding), neurotoxin (affects the nervous system), cardiotoxins (directly affects the heart) and cytotoxins (cause local tissue damage). Some of the most deadly, venomous snakes on the globe are Australian Brown snakes, King Cobras, Spitting Cobras, Black Mambas, Death Adders, Rattlesnakes, Tiger snakes, Blue Kraits, Taipans, Beaked Sea snakes, Saw Scaled Vipers, Boa Constrictors, Coral snakes, Diamondbacks, Cottonmouths, Pit Vipers, Boomslangs and Bushmasters.

The majority of snake attacks are blindly provoked. Snakes are territorial and most bites are a direct effect of people disturbing their habitat, sending the snake in to a defensive state. Do not attempt to handle a snake unless you have prior experience. And, most of all, when in the vicinity of a poisonous snake, the key is to remain calm and collected.

Travelers should always pack a snake bite kit when camping or spending prolonged time outdoors. A lot of venomous snake bites can be deadly if not treated quickly. Be swift to act. Always be aware of nearby medical treatment or hospitals that have anti venom when traveling in exotic or tropical regions. Be mindful of the ground you are stepping on whether you are in the garden, on a ranch, or in a rainforest. Empower yourself with knowledge of the species of venomous snakes, versus non-venomous snakes. Do not ever handle venomous snakes unless you are an expert.

WILD CATS: LIONS, TIGERS, COUGARS, JAGUARS, ETC.
In history books wild cats have been known to sometimes wipe out villages during times of famine or urbanization. They are hunters and top predators. Wild cats are diverse in species, size, appearance and ability, and reside in many locations. All of these species are potentially dangerous, some more than others, and when traveling in the mountains or taking a safari, be on the lookout for wild cats. All are swift, nimble and fierce.

Normally, none of these hunt humans. They are given a bad rap because of their ferocity, but wild cats are not mean-hearted creatures; they are simply behaving in accordance with their instinctive nature. And if you find yourself too close to a mother’s cubs, or a male thinks you are threatening his territory, or the tribe is not well-fed, you may find yourself in a life or death scenario.

When you come across a wild cat, it’s best not to make any sudden movements. Do not turn your back on one. Slowly step away while maintaining eye contact. If, however, you find yourself being charged by one or attacked, do anything possible to get yourself away from its reach. When wild cats attack they usually go straight for your vitals, like your throat, which is why they are such precise, lethal hunters.

BEARS
Bear attacks are rare. Brown bears were prevalent in the U.K. but are now extinct, though they still reside in other parts of Europe. In the U.S. there is an average of one fatality a year. For the most part, bears are uninterested in human contact and will head in another direction if they spot you. Often, travelers are unaware of the presence of bears, and vice versa. Do not take it for granted how dangerous bears are just because the annual death rate is low.

Brett Johnson, an urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says the best thing to do is to avoid bears in the first place. “If you’re hiking, don’t surprise the bears. I suggest a good conversation or singing. I do not suggest bear bells. Don’t hike alone, grab a couple of buddies. There are very few attacks involving groups of more than two people," he says. "If you are camping, be mindful of you campsite. Do not keep anything that may attract a bear to your sleeping area."

“Keep all food and anything used to cook or eat separate from your campsite: Food, soap, deodorant, trash. And never feed the bears," Johnson says. "Finally, I do recommend carrying bear pepper spray. It can be very effective in stopping an encounter.”

Scientists and experts say it is extremely important to know all the diverse species of bears in reference to their geographical habitats. Each species of bear in every location has unique pre-incident behaviors. For instance, the Asiatic black bear is considered to be much more aggressive than the American black bear.

More sound advice from Johnson to avoid a bear attack: “With a brown bear that knows you are there and is coming in your direction, talk loudly and wave your arms. Don’t turn and run. If a brown bear is startled—or is with cubs (bear is acting defensively)—lie on your stomach on the ground as quickly as possible. Lock your fingers behind your neck. If the bear starts to roll you, go with the momentum and keep rolling back to your stomach. Stay as quiet as possible. They tend to stop when the threat is neutralized."

“Black bears are a bit different," Johnson says. "Defensive attacks are rare in nature, and they have a stronger scavenger sense than brown bears. If you play dead, you might have invited yourself to dinner. So with a black bear, stand your ground and fight like you have never fought before. Many people have fought off attacks by black bears. If an attack occurs in a campsite, it will likely be at night and the person is asleep at the start. This is a predatory attack. Regardless of the species, don’t be an easy meal. Fight.”

SHARKS
Beneath the waves, sharks are apex predators; the top of the food chain in the underwater world. When it comes to oceanography—and especially after the movie Jaws hit cinemas in 1975—sharks have become a social obsession.

People are both mystified and terrified of sharks. Many swimmers will not venture in to deep ocean waters in fear of an attack, while others fearlessly dive in. Last year, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File released an annual summary of worldwide shark attacks in the year 2008. It included 118 alleged incidents of "shark-human interaction."

There are two kinds of attacks: provoked and uprovoked. This summary stated that 59 of the attacks were unprovoked.

Avoidance is the key to survival. On his webpage "How to Avoid Shark Attacks," ichthyologist George Burgess gives swimmers 14 different guidelines on how to avoid an attack, including: always swim in groups, never swim alone; don’t enter the water when bleeding; avoid waters close to fisherman or where bait fish is used; do not wear shiny jewelry; and avoid the water at night, dawn, and dusk. Most importantly, when and if you are actually attacked by a shark, Burgess says: Do whatever it takes to get away.

ALLIGATORS & CROCODILES
The easiest way to tell the difference between a crocodile and an alligator is by their differences of teeth and jaws, versus the shapes of their snouts. A crocodile has an elongated snout that narrows at the tip of its jaw line. An alligator has a shorter snout that is wide and more spacious. The upper and lower jaws of a crocodile are the same in width, and both rows of sharp teeth are on display when their mouth is shut. An alligator's upper jaw is bigger than its lower jaw, and all lower teeth are concealed when its mouths is shut.

Crocodiles have lingual salt glands on their tongues, making them more tolerant to saline. Alligators prefer to stick to freshwater. And while it is unusual, it’s not impossible to see an alligator in a coastal area, or a crocodile in freshwater. Brett Johnson of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says anything over eight feet is potentially dangerous to humans. "If there are known alligators or crocodiles in an area, be mindful of the fact," he says.

Two of most dangerous crocodiles on the planet are the Nile crocodile and the Australian crocodile. And two of the only alligator species left are the Chinese alligator and the American alligator.

Johnson is more familiar with alligators, but has sound advice when dealing with either reptile: “Do not feed the alligators, it only leads to an association of humans with food. Keep pets away from the waters edge. Alligators are faster on land than people give them credit for, but any attempt on land is pretty short-lived. Don’t run in a straight line," he says. "If you are in the water (or land), fight. The eye is pretty sensitive, but it’s a pretty small target. If you or someone else is attacked by an alligator and get away, first aid is your first concern (after getting to safety). Treat for bleeding and shock. Keep in mind that alligators have all sorts of neat bacteria in their mouth, so even with a minor bite it is a good idea to see the doctor."

This story originally appeared on WideWorld, an Outside partner site.

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