Many of the national parks in the U.S. are teeming with wildlife. People are often motivated to visit these parks to see impressive representatives of the animal kingdom for themselves. For the most part, human-animal interactions take place at a distance. Park-goers might get out the telephoto lens for a photo of a bison or pronghorn or use a pair of binoculars to better see an especially colorful flock of birds. On rare occasion, encounters are a little more “face-to-face” than a park visitor might expect. Though startling, these up-close meetings between human and animal are generally not violent. However, it only takes a few snakebite stories or headline-grabbing bear attacks to put nature lovers on edge. 


The good news is that violent and deadly animal encounters are extremely rare. Millions of people visit national parks every year, and there are only a handful of snakebites and bear encounters. A majority of negative animal encounters in national parks actually come from some of the parks' smallest residents — like ticks or mosquitoes. Unlike larger reptiles and mammals, these tiny creatures actively seek out humans. 


Whether you’re worried about small or large predators, there is a lot you can do to lower your odds of being harmed by an animal while visiting a national park.


grizzly bear

Photo: Fidelis Orozco/Flickr


Grizzly bear attacks are rare. When you consider that Yellowstone National Park counts its annual visitors in the millions, the chance of encountering one of the park's large, carnivorous residents is remote. And the odds of coming across a bear that is in any way aggressive are even lower. That said, Yellowstone has had more than its fair share of bear-caused fatalities. In fact, a man was killed by a grizzly earlier this year after coming across a mother and her young cubs. This unfortunate hiker was the most recent of three people who have been killed by bears in the past two years at Yellowstone. But according to the bear education site, bear attacks are still uncommon. The site says “for each person killed by a black bear (much more common than grizzlies) there are 13 people killed by snakes, 17 by spiders, 45 by dogs, 120 by bees, 150 by tornadoes....”


These numbers show that fear of a bear attack is certainly not a reason to cancel a trip to Yellowstone, or any other national park that has bears. However, national parks have responded to the danger of bear encounters by trying to educate the public about bear safety. These tips can help people avoid bears and be aware of what to do should the encounter a bear.


Since most bear encounters take place on or near roadways, parks advise visitors to remain inside their vehicles for photo opps, and always remain a safe distance (at least 100 yards) from the animal. Always avoid animal carcasses because bears may defend their food sources violently. The deadliest bear encounters often occur when a mother feels that her cubs are being threatened. Visitors are advised not to attempt to photograph cubs because the mother is almost always nearby and may become aggressive if she feels that her offspring are in any danger.


Bear pepper spray has been proven to successfully stop a bear attack. However, simply detouring around a bear or backtracking to find another route when a bear is in the area can make it possible to avoid situations where bear spray becomes a necessity. 



Photo: Mike Johnston/Flickr


Big, toothy mammals are not the only potentially dangerous creatures in America's national parks. After all, snakebites are more common than bear bites. Many bites occur when people attempt to directly handle snakes, though some happen when unlucky hikers unwittingly disturb the slithering creatures. According to the National Park Service, 8,000 people are bitten by snakes each year in the U.S., but only a small fraction of these bites are fatal. People may be surprised to know that the most common venomous snake in many U.S. parks, the rattlesnake, gives “dry” bites (bites where no venom is injected) about 25 percent of the time. That said, the NPS highlights the fact that all snakebites should be considered medical emergencies and attempts should be made to contact park rangers or to get the person to a medical facility quickly. 


Snakebite precautions can include wearing long, heavy pants and boots. Hikers who have to use their hands to balance while climbing or scrambling up rocky surfaces might want to consider gloves. Walking in open areas, with a clear view of the ground, can be a good way to avoid a surprise snake encounter. Many snakes sit in holes, on rocky ledges or in large rock cracks during the daytime. By avoiding these types of habitats, hikers can greatly decrease their chances of a snakebite. 


Florida's Everglades National Park has more than its share of poisonous snakes. However, one of the most menacing-looking reptiles, Burmese pythons, are constrictors, meaning they do not have poisonous bites. These snakes are not nearly as dangerous as the park's venomous species. They are, in fact, descended from pet pythons that were released into the wild and were able to thrive in the watery environment of the Everglades. 


Photo: Lennart Tange/Flickr


While bear attacks are rare and snakebites are uncommon, national park visitors in many parks (especially in the East and Midwest) have a higher risk of being bitten by a much smaller animal. Disease-carrying ticks — sometimes as small as the head of a pin — are found throughout parks in the U.S. Lyme disease, a treatable but serious illness, is carried by a certain species known commonly as the deer tick (sometimes called black legged tick). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been at least 30,000 probable cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. each year for the past four years. Unfortunately, deer ticks thrive in the rural landscapes of national parks and live in trees and trailside brush, so coming into contact with them is easy. Since they are so small, avoidance strategies that can be used for larger dangerous species are not useful when it comes to deer ticks. 


However, some commonsense practices can make it easier to detect ticks. Wearing bright-colored clothing will make it simpler to spot ticks during or after a hike, while stripping down to check yourself for the bugs after you return home is also helpful. Seeing these tiny creatures can be tough, even for someone with sharp eyesight. However, people who are bitten can still limit the damage if they become infected. With early detection and treatment, Lyme disease is nothing more than an inconvenience for most people. In about 80 percent of Lyme disease cases, a red, bull's-eye-shaped rash will occur in the area around the bite after several days (though, according to the CDC, the rash may not be noticeable until up to 30 days after the bite). This rash can grow to a foot or more in diameter, making it easy to detect. Without treatment, disease sufferers can begin to feel joint and back pain and can also have nerve problems such as Bell's palsy (the loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face). Going months or more without treatment can lead to serious joint and nervous system problems. Some patients will continue to have symptoms even after treatment (which usually consists of a strong course of antibiotics). Though not as gruesome as bear attacks or as fatal as snake bites, tick bites remain a cause for concern. These tiny creatures are one of the more dangerous inhabitants of U.S. national parks. 


Negative encounters with the animal residents of America's national parks are quite rare. With the proper knowledge and precautions, visitors can lower their odds of experiencing an animal attack even more.  


Looking for park travel ideas? We've got plenty!


MNN tease photo: Shutterstock


How to avoid animal attacks in a national park
While violent encounters with animals at national parks are rare, the danger of severe injury, illness and even death make these experiences worth preventing.