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Wild animal encounter safety review

A cougar attacked a 9-year-old girl in Eastern Washington recently. Such attacks are rare. (Art G. /

Wild animal encounter safety review

Attacks are rare, but knowing how to reduce chances of a wild animal encounter — or what to do if it happens — could save your child's life.

In the wake of a cougar attack on a 9-year-old Eastern Washington girl last month, the internet has lit up with concern about possible attacks by big cats and other wild animals common in Washington State. With summer fast approaching and hiking or camping outings calling, there’s no better time to sit your family down for a wild animal encounter safety review.

First step, reduce the chances

But first, take note: Wild animal attacks are rare in Washington according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The first fatal cougar attack recorded in the state occurred in 1924, and since then, only 20 other cougar-human interactions that resulted in injury or fatality have been confirmed.

Wildlife experts across the board say teaching kids to follow basic safety rules can help significantly to reduce the chances of encounters with cougars, black bears, grizzlies, snakes, bison, mountain goats and other species. Be sure to:

  • Store food or things that smell in sealed containers from which no scent can escape. Read up on proper food storage and handling for campers and backpackers.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. To eyes, ears, nose tests as you move in nature. 
  • Be noisy in nature! Most animals are shy and will head the opposite direction.
  • Don’t hike at night when larger animals are most likely to be on the prowl
  • Keep your distance. National parks officials remind hikers to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves encountered in federal parks, and 25 yards away from all other wildlife. 
  • Follow The 7 Leave No Trace Principles including learning how to properly dispose of human waste.
  • Don’t feed wild animals.
  • Learn about where you are headed. Websites for national parks and state land management agencies offer plenty of tips on staying safe..
  • What to do if you see a wild animal
What to do if . . .

Perhaps the best local source is Kent-based Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). Outdoors experts there have laid out exactly what to do if a wild animal approaches. The lists of dos and don’ts are easy to understand and outlined for each species a hiker may encounter in our state. For example, REI’s experts offer this advice in the unlikely case you run into one of the state’s 2,000 normally-shy cougars:

  • Do not approach a cougar
  • Stop and don’t run. Running may trigger the animal’s instinct to attack.
  • Pick up small children or move them behind you.
  • Face the cougar and don’t take your eyes off it.
  • Try to appear larger than the cougar by raising your arms or swinging a jacket around above your head. You can even stand on something to make yourself taller.
  • Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away.
  • If the cougar appears aggressive and moves toward you, shout and throw things to try to make the cougar realize you’re a potential danger.
  • If a cougar attacks, REI experts advise hikers to: Fight back, be aggressive, use whatever you can to beat back the cat, spray bear spray (good to have on all camping expeditions) at the cougar’s face.

Read up on what to do in the unlikely case your family encounters a potentially dangerous animals in the wild at REI Expert Advice.

For more on this topic go to Hiking Safety Tips for Families.


About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is a certified doula, lactation educator and postpartum doula. She’s the owner of Nesting Instincts Perinatal Services in Seattle.