Lions and Creepers and Bears! (OH MY!)

Last week, 60-year old Sheryl Powell vanished from Grandview Campground after a reported confrontation with a knife-wielding male who intended to sexually assault here. Search and rescue operations found Powell after four days, during which time she survived by drinking spring water. 

Only a few weeks prior, a man was shot after entering a couples’ tent at a Stanislaus National Forest campground in Tuolumne County. The woman woke up with the man on top of her, and her boyfriend shot the man in the head in self-defense. 

In late May, a mountain lion attacked a 4-year old boy at Penasquitos Canyon, resulting in severe injuries to the boy. Officials tracked the lion down and killed it. It was the first confirmed attack in San Diego County in 25 years. 

Reaction across hiking social media following the events was fairly predictable, with a lot of posts aghast at the incidents. Many people appeared to take this as confirmation of a deeply held fear: that you never know who or what is going to be out there on the trail, and the best thing to do is to prepare yourself. Preparation, in this case, included being armed with tasers, pepper spray, bear spray, knives, machetes, and firearms. 

Such a reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. After all, one of the most deep-seated fears we hold is that of being attacked and killed. We evolved from ancestral humans who lived in constant threat of being hunted and killed by predators, and that part of our brain and the associated stress responses are essentially unchanged. Events like these tap into that primitive fear. 

Anxiety and fear responses are essential parts of human survival. If we can’t respond appropriately to threats, we die. Modern humans face an interesting conundrum. Most of what we evolved to fear has disappeared from our daily experience, but our fear response remains. We now apply the fear response to more existential and intangible threats, such as social rejection, economic hardship, climate change, vicarious threats such as stories about others being killed, and perhaps most crucially, distorted thinking styles.

Essentially, a distorted thinking style is one that is based in irrationality. Psychologists and therapists deal with these thinking styles using cognitive-behavioral techniques, which target thoughts born from irrationality and attempt to adjust those thoughts by introducing plausible, rational explanations. Since our thoughts tend to produce a corresponding emotional reaction, reacting to a thought based in reality is essential to producing an appropriate emotional response. Irrational thoughts tend to produce emotional reactivity, usually of a negative sort. If left unchecked, that emotional reactivity can evolve into mood disorders like anxiety, phobias, depression, and anger. 

With all of this in mind, I was pretty ambivalent about the reaction to these events. On one hand, I recognize this as a terrible ordeal for the people involved. I empathize with the fear they must have felt, and I’m grateful that they are safe. On the other hand, I must admit that I cringed frequently at the way people reacted. To be clear, if there were consistent and persistent threats associated with being outdoors, then yes, it would make sense to arm yourself in self-protection, if you even bothered to go outside at all. But my honest, gut-check reaction was that people may have been overreacting.

The answer seems to hinge on how significant is the threat of being attacked by a critter or a creeper? Surprisingly, there exists scant information to illuminate just how significant these threats actually are, at least where humans are concerned. We actually know quite a lot about the significance of animal threats. 

From 1986 to 2014, there were 15 verified mountain lion attacks in California, with three of them fatal. That of course doesn’t include the May 2019 attack (nonfatal). While those are all significant incidents, they represent an extremely unlikely scenario. In fact, statistically speaking, you are 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be attacked by a mountain lion.

Statistics for black bear attacks are less reliable, as I couldn’t actually find statistics on black bear attacks in California (possibly because it’s so insignificant a threat that nobody keeps those stats). Across the U.S. there have been 61 fatal black bear attacks since 1900, and there has never actually been a confirmed death in California. You’re actually 60,000 times more likely to be killed by a human than by a black bear. 

Statistics on human-on-human violence in public land jurisdictions are even harder to find, also possibly because the phenomenon is not significant enough to measure. The National Parks’ Investigative Service Branch does release overall statistics on crime, but they don’t break it down by types of crime. Between 2016-2018, they reported that 1,787 crimes were investigated across the entire National Park System, and that about 57% of those crimes (1,019) of those crimes were perpetrated against humans. 

Since the ISB report does not indicate violent crimes (the only crimes where it would be rational to arm yourself), it’s hard to speculate on how many violent crimes actually occurred. However, even if you were to assume that all 1,019 crimes were violent, you must also consider that 979.7 MILLION people visited the National Parks between 2016-2018. That’s one crime for every 961,000 people visiting the National Parks. That’s nearly a 1 in a million chance that a human could do something bad to you in a National Park, not accounting for the lack of distinction between violent crimes.

What can we conclude from all of this? Well, first of all the data isn’t really sufficient to make strong conclusions because there just isn’t enough of it. However, based on the statistics above, violent crime is extraordinarily rare. The odds of being attacked on the trail may be so low, that they are almost non-existent, thus removing any rational reason for arming yourself. 

And yet, people occasionally react to the threat as if it’s the most immediate danger they can face, choosing to arm themselves. This reaction is based on a fundamental flaw in thinking known as over-generalization. This is where a person imagines that patterns exist in random, isolated incidents. The primitive fear of being attacked drives this logical fallacy, and because it comes from an older part of the brain and a highly evolved but primitive stress response, it’s difficult for many people to dissect the thought and put it to rest. There’s no rational argument to support such thinking, which means that the emotional reaction is also equally irrational. We also tend to catastrophize the significance of this threat, meaning we imagine that if we aren’t armed, we too may be killed by lions and creepers and bears.

So as more and more people who are prone to not questioning these kinds of assumptions arm themselves against perceived, nearly non-existent threats on the trail, I can’t help but wonder how long it is until we hear about the first innocent person shot and killed because of a misunderstanding. I can’t help but wonder how long it is before we start hearing stories of toddlers shooting themselves in their parents’ tents because the parent left an armed gun lying around. I don’t want to be grim and morbid about this, but it happens enough outside of the outdoor world that I’m afraid (rationally or not, I don’t know) that we’ll start seeing it in the outdoors as more and more people arm themselves.

To be clear, if you feel like you need to carry some form of protection, whatever your reasons, I recognize your right to do so (provided the land management jurisdiction allows it). I’m not trying to take that away from you. However, there’s never any harm in stopping to question whether your assumptions are valid, either.

6 Replies to “Lions and Creepers and Bears! (OH MY!)”

  1. I don’t agree at all with this view. Looking at statistics superficially as you have done ignores the differential rates of exposure to these threat environments. The reason that the rates of wild animal attacks are relatively low is that most humans are never within range of potentially lethal wild animals. Even the NPS stat that you use to make your comparison is flawed because while you think that a million people visited, that is not true. That number is all park visitors records, many of whom are the same people, visiting at different times and locations throughout the year. The number of unique visitors is certainly much much lower – how much lower is not clear, but there are many thousands of annual park passes sold every year, and most pass holders buy them because either they make frequent visits to the same park, or visit multiple parks. One park pass holder might account for dozens or even hundreds of “visitor entrances” recorded. If oyu had just looked at the data – that nearly 300M “visitors” were recorded each of the three years, you’d see that doesn’t even pencil out. There are only 300M citizens of the US, so what, everyone in the nation went to the park? Or we had 200M visitors to the US each year all of whom went to the park, and then 1/3 of all Americans went also? No. The number of unique visitors is probably in the single digits of millions annually. With annual pass holders and day trip tours from tourists (who tend to not go off paved trails or into backcountry) accounting for many of those (a double decker tour bus holds about 80 people). Park Service officials at Yosemite might just say, ok, we collected 100 bus fees per day on average, so that’s 36,500 buses at 80 people each, voila, 2.4M bus visitors, plus all the cars that came through the gate times 3 people per car on average, and whammo, pretty soon you get this huge number! But few of those people go anywhere off trails or into backcountry where the odds of encountering a hungry bear are low. Bears in the valley are fat and well fed off garbage. They don’t need to attack you, and they are well habituated to humans.

    Conversely, attacks and deaths from domestic animals are far higher, since people are around dangerous domestic animals (like dogs) far more frequently than they are around hungry unhabituated black bears or rattlesnakes or what not.

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    1. Hi John. Thanks for your comment.

      I get what you’re saying about the statistics I’m referring to. I acknowledge in the article that existing data about dangerous trail encounters is pretty scant, and I know that my conclusions (which have more to do with the psychology at play than the actual stats) can’t fully rely on data.

      However, whether those 300+ million people annually is an inflated number of not, it does show that the actual crime rate on NPS property is still very low, even if you deflate the numbers. And recall that I assumed all of the crimes that occurred in the referenced time period were violent, which they were almost certainly not.

      I think of it like this: Every time a person steps on a trail or visits public land, there’s an opportunity for something to go wrong. Dehydration, injury, getting lost, heat issues, and hypothermia are the most common issues. There are some stats in some cases that reveal these are the real threats, and they are all human errors. But if you think about the number of times people visit public land and compare it to the number of violent crimes, it still stands that violent crime is extraordinarily rare, which still suggests my assertion that people are thinking irrationally about the prevalence of violent crime is correct and thus overreacting. Again, I know the evidence isn’t there, but that may also be because violent crime on public land is so rare that there’s no reason to track it.

      With bears, I feel the statistics I provided are incomplete, but they also illustrate what we know about black bears: they don’t tend to be aggressive, habituated or not. Unlike grizzly bears, black bears will retire when confronted by humans, and black bear attacks are anomalous.

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