Dozens of spectators were horrified in February when a 12,000-pound killer whale pulled Orlando SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater during a routine performance, eventually killing her. While it may be impossible to determine whether the act was malicious or simply a giant animal trying to play, this tragedy is a strong reminder of nature’s strength and potential ferocity—and the need for humans to always err on the side of caution when dealing with would-be wild creatures.
While there are no official tallies of human deaths caused by animals, these types of encounters shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite man’s efforts to conquer nature, we haven’t yet mastered the wild kingdom. As a result, animal attacks—mauls, mangles, swarms, and stings—have steadily increased as our desire to get in touch with nature reaches new heights, giving rise to an entire travel industry touting intense up-close encounters with untamed, and potentially dangerous, creatures.
Though wild animals lured travelers to hazardous habitats centuries before Hemingway hunted the Big Five in Africa, not all animal encounters are “natural.” Killer bees—a lab experiment gone awry—have caused hundreds of deaths since they were accidentally released from an experimental Brazilian hive in 1957.
And over the past decade, South Florida has fast become a feral orphanage of dangerous pets, most abandoned by their owners and left to grow in the swamps with local gators and venomous snakes. “When exotic pets don’t sell, they get dumped,” says Virginia Aronson, author of the upcoming book Iguana Invasion: Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida. “Dangerous species on the loose in Florida include several giant snakes, like African rock and Burmese pythons.”
But the way we respond to animal attacks remains a delicate and political subject. Conservationists are quick to remind us that attacks, in general, are downright rare. Sometimes the animals are looking for food when they take bites out of us, which is nothing more than what we do to them. Many attack when threatened or confused, like tigers, whose habitat continues to dwindle—the World Wildlife Federation forecasts their numbers will drop from around 5,000 to as low as 20 by 2070. The polar bear population is also declining as their habitat slowly melts into the ocean as a result of climate change.
But the cold fact remains: animal attacks happen. Travelers who show caution, choose the right outfitters, and learn a few sensible survival tips will be the best prepared to face nature’s most ferocious animal instincts.