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Animal Attacks – Understanding & Avoiding Them

There is one principle buried deep in the DNA of all living species on earth – to survive long enough to reproduce themselves successfully.

Living in the wild is full of risks and survival is a struggle against things like:

  • Being eaten by predators;
  • Starvation – not able to find or catch enough food;
  • Drought, flood, fire, natural disasters;
  • Diseases and parasites etc..

Let us look at the first one – avoiding predators. All animals must behave in a way which minimizes their chances of being taken by predators themselves or having their babies killed or eggs stolen. Defence against predators includes:

  • Baby animals staying in their nest or den or close to parents;
  • Being especially protective of young;
  • Members of social groups taking turns to be “lookout”, while the rest of the group forage or graze;
  • Being highly alert to unusual sounds, sights and smells – ears twitching, constantly glancing about, sniffing the air, prepared to make a dash to safety;
  • Staying hidden and still as much as possible.

Let us look at snake bites from this point of view. No venomous snake sets out to hunt human beings as prey. The main reason humans are bitten is that a snake has defended itself against what seems to be a serious threat from the human by the only means of defence available to it.  (It is interesting to note that  “(V)enom is metabolically costly to produce and may not in itself immediately deter an imposing human or predator, as most venoms need time to exert their toxic effects, snakes may benefit from delivering warning bites devoid of venom (‘dry bites’) to predators and threats, thereby saving their venom for future prey. ” (Pucca MB., et. Al.    “Current Knowledge on Snake Dry Bites”, Toxins (Basel). 2020 Oct 22;12(11),

Many years ago, I read a study (which I cannot find any reference to online now) that suggested that in the USA an overwhelming number of victims of rattlesnake bites are of European ethnicity in comparison to a minute number of Native American victims. The theory put forward was that Native Americans tended to live closer to nature and to make their way around the natural environment in a more careful and aware manner, paying attention to avoiding making a snake feel threatened. The European population, particularly those who are only visiting the wild areas as tourists, tend to blunder about oblivious to such a need.

There might be a further aspect to this difference in the snake bite figures which lies in a very important basic difference in attitude. For example, the Hopi tribe, who are indigenous to the arid Arizona area of the US, treat human and nonhuman beings alike as empowered residents of the natural landscape.  They value each ant, lizard, bird or snake because the creature is surviving in the harsh, desert landscape where living is a struggle and the focus is on all living things being allies. Rattlesnakes are only killed out of great need and with huge regret and respect. (Delchamps, Vivian, “Rattlesnake Kinship: Indigeneity, Disability, Animality”, Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol. 41 No. 4 (2021): Fall 2021, If you do not think that killing a snake is really an option your basic manner of moving through a snake infested landscape is careful and aware.

In this regard I am attaching, with the author’s permission, the following article by Dave Rushworth (ex-National Parks and pioneer of children’s wildlife camps in Zimbabwe). The article originally appeared in a publication called Hoedspruit Herald.


By Dave Rushworth

Basically, animals and human beings behave in the same way. Try and get rid of the idea that all animals attack human beings. They won’t, except on the same occasions as people would attack animals. Put yourself in the animal’s place and think what you would do. In nearly every case the animals would do the same.

If you saw an animal, you would first look at it. If it came towards you and you were frightened you would run away. If for some reason you couldn’t or didn’t want to run away, you would start shouting at the animal or try and warn it not to come any closer.  If it came too close and you were able to attack it, you would do so.

The same applies to animals. They will generally look at you and then, if frightened, run away.  If they have young that can’t run or have food they don’t want to leave, and you come closer, they will warn you. If you don’t heed the warning and go closer, the animal may attack you if it is able to do so.

When you observe or hear a warning – leave the animal alone. The animal has done its best to warn you and you have only yourself to blame if you go closer and are attacked.

Warnings are generally given by a defensive stance, a short, sharp sound or by showing a warning colour which is normally white or black in the case of mammals.

Some warnings are obvious, like the baring of teeth, growling or trumpeting. Try to learn the various warning and alarm calls.

  • Monkeys will raise their eyebrows and show the white upper eyelid.  
  • Antelope will snort and sometimes shake their heads.
  • Small mammals will chitter or squeak.
  • Rhino will snort (a loud sniff) and face you with head up.  
  • Birds give a shrill cry and the larger birds of prey will raise their wings and puff themselves out.

A cobra standing up and spreading its hood is not going to bite you. It knows you can’t see it easily lying flat so stands up and spreads its hood so that you can see it. All that it is really saying, “Here I am – don’t come any closer”. If you do go closer, it is in a position to bite you and will do so – but that is your fault. If you back slowly away it will lower itself and move away.

Animals that make a noise and flap their ears and heads around aren’t attacking. They are warning you or trying to chase you away. You would do the same thing if chasing a chicken or a dog. (If you wanted to catch something you would go quietly.)

When you get a bad fright from something very near to you, like being jumped on in the dark, your first reaction is to attack what frightened you. The same applies to animals. If you get very close to them without them knowing they may get such a fright that they will attack you.

Animals with young, wounded animals and animals that are trapped, surprised at close quarters or have no escape are the ones most likely to attack you as they might be very frightened.

The poor old rhino is rather like this. Rhino normally lie up in thick bush and if they don’t see, hear or smell you, they can’t give you a warning until you are right on top of them. When they suddenly see you near them, they automatically charge at you. It isn’t that they don’t like you – they are just very frightened. You would do the same thing.

Remember, then, to announce yourselves to an animal through scent, sight or sound. If it warns you then don’t go any nearer. Just watch from a distance.

When you think of it, it boils down to good manners. Many people think that they can do just what they want when in the bush. There is just as much need for good manners among animals as there is among people.




Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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