Often when we think of nature study, we think of butterflies and little insects and maybe birds and squirrels, but what about the larger animals and the potential dangers that they might bring with them? Today we want to explore that question. How can we make sure our children are aware of dangers in nature, but not so fearful they won’t go out in nature? As usual, let’s ask Karen Smith for some ideas.

Sonya: Karen, thanks for joining us again. This time the question is about larger animals and maybe other dangers that are in nature, so let me read you the question that we got and then you can give us some advice. 

Question: How do I deal with real wildlife dangers? We live on land that has a variety of predators, including cougars. I want to teach my kids safety without making them anxious. I’m really struggling with how to protect them without losing the feeling of freedom and encouraging them to explore their own backyard woods.

It’s a good question. What are some ideas that you can share with us? 

Karen: In nature study—there are rules. Always. You should respect things when you’re in nature; keep a respectful distance of most things. If you’re approaching an animal too closely, the animal is going to show signs of nervousness, and that means you’re too close, so watch from a distance. That’s always a good thing. Observe with your eyes, your ears, your nose; so smell, look, and listen to the sounds of nature and the things in nature. Touch and taste, save those for the things that you absolutely are certain will not harm you. 

Sonya: That’s good advice. 

Karen: Always respect others when you’re in nature. Don’t pick things, move things, or be loud so bird or animals are scared away. That way, others can enjoy being out in nature too. 

Sonya: So those are general rules that apply for all nature studies. All right, so what about safety rules? 

Karen: Always make sure that you’re wearing proper shoes and clothing when you go out in nature. There are things that can hurt you, even inanimate things, if you’re not being careful where you’re walking. Rocks, tree roots, and logs are all hidden on paths sometimes, and, if you’re not wearing proper shoes, you could come away with a bruised toe or two. 

Sonya: Or worse. 

Karen: Or worse. Yes, so make sure that your footwear and your clothing match where you’re going to be out. When you are walking along the path and there’s a log or a large rock in the way, step on it, not over it. 

Sonya: Why is that? 

Karen: Because snakes like to hide in those places. And if you step over a log or a large rock, you might step on the snake, so if you step on it, then you can see where you’re stepping before you start. 

Sonya: Before you actually get there. That makes total sense. And we’re talking large rocks, not every little stone in the path you can step on. 

Karen: Correct, something that you would have to step over. 

Sonya: Yes, and that you can’t see what’s on the other side necessarily. Okay, so step on it first and look. Look before you leap. 

Karen: Most large animals, dangerous animals, are going to move away from you because they’ll hear you coming and you won’t even see them. How many times do you walk through the woods and, even animals that are not dangerous, how many times do you see deer? 

Sonya: Not very often. 

Karen: Not very often, because they usually hear you before you see them, and they move away so that you never see them.The large predatory animals, it’s the same type of a thing, most of them will do that. 

When I was in Alaska a few years ago, this is very interesting, I’d never thought of this, but there are so many bears. When the people are out hiking, they wear bells so that they clang it with every step, and that helps to scare the bears away so they don’t come up on one unexpectedly. And I thought that was very interesting. And my experience in Alaska, the small amount of time I was there, was that there were many people who went out hiking, and they didn’t let threat of a bear attack keep them from enjoying being outside. So it’s something to keep in mind; the large predatory animals are there, but there are ways to protect yourself from them. 

Sonya: It sounds like the people educated themselves. In a sense, you’re more frightened of what you don’t know a lot of times. And that’s true, and so they educated themselves about the bears and discovered that the bells would help the bears hear them coming so they could make way. 

Karen: Yes, “Get out of my way, I’m coming through.” It’s important to have a plan before you go out, knowing what you’re going to do if you encounter some danger.  And another good idea is to check your state’s Department of Natural Resources website to find out which dangerous animals might live in your area, so that you can better prepare for being out in nature. 

Sonya: That makes total sense, because we prepare for emergencies in the house. For example, if there’s a fire, what are we supposed to do? And so it’s the same idea here. If you meet a large predatory animal, here is what we plan to do.

Karen: Another thing that’s important is if mom has fears, the child is going to pick up on that. Moms, dads, you need to be very careful that your fears do not translate to your children, and keep those fears under caps, because that will color your children’s perception of being out in nature. If you’re fearful, they’re going to pick up on that. 

Sonya: It seems like there should be a difference between caution and fear, or anxiety. 

Karen: Yes. You can be cautious, keep your ears open, keep your eyes open, be smart about how you’re moving through nature, but you don’t need to hold back because around the corner there might be something that will attack. So you know you want to be careful with that; you also want to be careful with walking in nature while being fearful, because as humans, we don’t know when somebody’s fearful; we can hide it pretty well, but animals pick up on it very quickly.  For them, that initiates a response from predators that you are prey. You are weak, and so you need to be careful with those fears when you’re in nature. 

Sonya: Sending signals that could get you in trouble, yes, good point.

Karen: So, what should you do if you do happen upon a large predatory animal? Keep in mind that these encounters are rare, and attacks are even more rare. There are some things that are recommended that you do. The first thing is face and stand the animal. Look at the animal; stand up to it. Don’t move towards it, but stand up, face the animal, wave your arms, and make as much noise as you can. 

Keep in mind that encounters with large predatory animals are rare, and attacks are even more rare.

Sonya: So try to make yourself as big as possible and intimidating, almost. 

Karen: Yes. Loud voices, loud noises. 

Sonya: Because they tend to go after things that are smaller than they are, and things that are fearful.  So those two things are going to put you in a bad state. I just keep thinking of Little House in the Big Woods, when Pa saw the stump and he thought it was a bear, and he was standing up to it and waving his arms and all that. That’s what keeps coming to mind. 

Karen: And that’s exactly what you should do; make yourself look big. Wave your arms. That movement puts them off their guard. And make loud noises. It makes them unsure. So you’ve become the stronger being in this encounter. The other thing, and this is very difficult, is do not run. 

Sonya: That would be difficult. 

Karen: Pick up any children that you have with you so that they do not run, because when you run away from a predator, you have become prey. That’s what they do. That’s the the trigger for them to respond in a way, to chase. And they will chase you. And it’s very hard for people to outrun animals. Let’s keep that in mind. And then the last thing is, if you are attacked, and remember that’s very rare, do not play dead. Fight back. 

Sonya: Oh, because I’ve heard about “I just played dead and they lost interest and left me alone.”

Karen: Right, but the recommendation is don’t play dead, but fight back. Because again, you want to put them off their guard. “Oh, this is fighting back.”

Sonya: Okay, so we need to help our children. This is all part of having a plan—rehearsing these things so our children know, and we might even do some role play because when the adrenaline’s pumping we need to be practiced. We need to make these habits, really. It’s what we need to do if we’re in an area that has large predators or if we’re going to go to an area that where there might be large predators as well. So we’re educating ourselves about the predators, and we’re practicing these safety rules. 

This is all part of having a plan—rehearsing these things so our children know. We need to make these habits if we’re going to go to an area that where there might be large predators as well.

Karen: And we’re trying not to show our children our own fears. Teach them to to be cautious, yes, but not fearful, and use all their senses to be smart while they’re out in nature. 

Sonya: All right, thank you very much.