Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
The fatal mauling of a Seattle bicyclist in western Washington serves as a reminder that nature is wild and poses unavoidable threats to human beings when we venture into it — or when nature ventures to us.
The friends riding the trails near Snoqualmie did everything right when they spotted the cougar — got off their bikes, made loud noises and scared it off — and yet the man who survived said the animal returned to attack.
It was an unusual death — just the second attributed to a cougar in the state in the last 94 years — but its rarity makes it no less tragic.
But as terrifying an ordeal as it was for those men, and for others who come face-to-face with predators on their home turf, it’s worth remembering that large mammals pose a relatively small threat to humans.
Dogs are the most deadly, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates about 25,000 human deaths a year by canine attack. The vast majority of those are from rabid dogs, though about 30 people die in the U.S. each year from non-rabid dog attacks. That is about the same number of people who have been killed by a cougar in the U.S. in the last century.
Mosquitoes are the deadliest beast in the world, accounting for 725,000 annual human deaths, the majority from the spread of malaria. In the U.S., bees, wasps and hornets are the top killers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, killing 58. Cows (20) are the second deadliest, while spiders (7) and venomous snakes and lizards (6) keep just a high enough body count to give us the willies. Sharks, alligators and bears each kill about one American per year.
We’re the top of the food chain in the forests of Oregon. Almost without fail, bears, wolves and cougars sprint in the opposite direction whenever they hear or smell a human. Very rarely do they attack, and when they do it’s often because they are ill or injured.
Yet as the West’s wild spaces become filled in with human habitation, collisions between its apex predators will become more common. We must know how to protect ourselves — with bear spray, with respect and space for wild animals, with knowledge about best practices. For large predators, act big and be loud. Don’t run. Play dead if an animal makes physical contact. But if it appears to be trying to kill, then punch at its face, eyes and nose.
But the point we try to make in this editorial is that you are much more likely to be attacked and killed by the neighbor’s dog, or that tick you can’t see, than an apex predator in the mountains. Be careful, but don’t let fear stop you from experiencing wildness. Odds are that another person in the region won’t be killed by a cougar for many decades.