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Stay safe from wildlife (and insects) big and small

Image of a black bear in Whistler, B.C.
If you see a bear, stay calm, talk softly and slowly back away. Don't run.

For a safe summer, respect bears, cougars, coyotes, wasps and ticks

'If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise'
– From Henry Hall's 1932 children's song The Teddy Bears Picnic

If you go down to the woods this summer, remember that bear attacks are rare, and cougar attacks are rarer. Coyote incidents seem to be on the rise, and wasps become a real issue as the summer wears on.

The good news is that British Columbians are fairly used to co-existing with wildlife and insects. The bad news is that wildlife can still be unpredictable, and many of us still have a lot to learn about how to handle a potentially dangerous situation.

Here are six things you should know about animals (including wasps and ticks) in the wild. Take a look – it could come in handy in what will be a busy summer outdoors.

1. Know your bears, and how to deal with one

The best way to prevent an unpleasant bear encounter is to avoid surprising them. If you're going hiking and camping, take a friend or two with you (the larger the group, the better). Make your presence known by talking, singing, whistling, or by wearing a bear bell. Most bears prefer to avoid contact with humans and will likely move away if they hear you coming.

Start by learning how to tell bears apart, because black bears act differently from grizzly bears.

Follow this advice if you have a close-up encounter with a bear:

  • Remain calm: It's scary to encounter a bear, but resist the temptation to panic and run
  • Analyze the situation: Are cubs present? Is there a food source that the bear may want to defend?
  • Talk softly: Identify yourself to the bear in a calm, appeasing tone.
  • Back away slowly: Go back in the direction you came from while keeping your eye on the bear so you can see how it's reacting.
  • If a bear seems agitated: If the bear swats the ground, snorts, lunges or "bluff charges", it's a signal that it wants you to go away. Again, don't run.
  • Use bear spray if the bear comes near: If it's about to make contact, use bear spray. No bear spray? See the next point.
  • If the bear attacks: Don't run! If it's not a false charge and there's a threat of contact, you can fight back or play dead. To play dead, fall to the ground, roll onto your stomach, cover your neck and the back of your head with your hands, and don't get up until the bear is out of the area.
  •  If the bear is just checking you out: Sometimes a bear, especially those near the city and used to humans, might not be aggressive but still get close. Talk to it in a firm voice, then back out of its way if you can. If it persists in a non-threatening way, shout at it and make yourself as big as possible. Wave a stick above your head.

Get more bear safety tips

Image of a cougar
Most of us never see a cougar in the wild. To prevent encounters, stay in groups and keep kids and pets close by.

2. With cougars, there's safety in numbers

Cougar attacks, such as the predatory attack on a woman in her rural backyard near Harrison Mills in early May, are extremely rare. As with bears, the best way to avoid an encounter in cougar country is to stay in groups, keep small children extremely close, and to keep your dog on a leash.

If you spot a cougar, pick up small children (or your small dog). They tend to prey on the smallest and/or weakest.

As with bears, back away slowly. Don't crouch down. But if the cougar creeps nearer, it's time to act. Make yourself big: wave a stick or walking stick, and if the cougar comes close, throw rocks. And if a cougar attacks, fight back.

With cougars, there's safety in numbers.

Image of a coyote walking on a Vancouver beach
Coyotes can adjust to life in urban settings, but never forget they're a wild animal.

3. Treat coyotes like the wild animals they are

At first glance, a coyote can easily be mistaken for a medium-sized dog. However, coyotes tend to be naturally fearful of people and will often slink away at the sight of you. If however, a coyote doesn't take off, or is hanging around in your yard, here are some tips.

  • Make yourself as big as possible to try and intimidate the coyote.
  • Make loud noises – bang pots and pans, blow a whistle or air horn – to try and scare the coyote off.
  • Pick up any small children or pets. Never allow your dog to approach a coyote.

Coyotes often act more aggressively towards dogs during mating season (January to March) so it's best to keep your pets leashed. Picking up after your dog is also important as canine feces can be a coyote attractant.

4. Don't make it easy for animals to find food

The search of food is the single biggest reason wildlife comes into our communities, and if their search is successful, it's very hard to get them to leave. This puts the animal at risk as it loses its fear of humans and can become a safety concern for residents.

Here are some important tips to help keep wildlife away from your home or campsite:

  • Never feed wildlife. Doing so will encourage the animal to return to the area.
  • Don't leave food or water out for your pets. That's really attractive to wildlife.
  • Don't take food into a tent. And leave the clothes you've been cooking in outside, in a tightly-lidded bin.
  • Keep garbage in animal-proof bins. Keep bins in a secured area and only take them out for pick-up on garbage day.
  • Keep small children close by and pets on leash.
  • Don't allow pets to roam at night.
  • Pick fruit off trees. And pick fruit off the ground if any has fallen. If you compost, bury fruit deep inside.
  • Install motion sensor lights around your property.

For more information more safety tips and information on the wildlife species found in our beautiful province, check out WildSafeBC.

Image of a tick on a person's finger
If you've been in the bush at a time of the year when ticks are around, check your clothing, scalp, base of the head and pubic area for ticks. And don't forget to check your dog.

5. Guard against ticks, then check and remove any you find

The threat of contracting Lyme disease from wood ticks in B.C. is relatively small, but these tiny 8-legged creatures can be plentiful in grassy and wooded areas of B.C., especially from March through June. Guard against getting them in the first place, then know how to check for them (and remove them).

Here are a few tips for avoiding and dealing with ticks:

  • Wear high boots or tuck pant cuffs into socks. Application of insect repellents containing DEET to the pants may assist in repelling ticks.
  • Avoid game trails or old roads overgrown or closely lined with vegetation. Tick levels may be high in areas frequented by animals.
  • Sit on a bare rock, a ground sheet, or a vegetation-free area instead of stretching out on vegetation.
  • Check for ticks daily, paying particular attention to the pubic region, the base of the skull, and the scalp. Check the backs of everyone in the group and carefully inspect any children. Clothes should be closely examined for ticks, especially near the collar, after they have been hanging overnight.
  • Know the symptoms. If you have the following symptoms within days or weeks after being bitten by a tick, please report them to your family doctor immediately: a rash, headache, joint pain, fever, or flu-like symptoms.

How to avoid and remove ticks (HealthSafeBC)

Image of wasps on an outdoor table
When there's food around in summer, wasps are never far away.

6. Remove food sources to minimize wasp visits

Wasps love a party, at least when there's food around. So as the summer moves along and wasps get busy, it's a good idea to minimize the presence of food, sweet drinks and other things that might attract them.

When there are wasps around, avoid going barefoot. Be careful in berry bushes when picking fruit (or pick early in the morning before they're active). And if you accidentally disturb a nest or hear a buzzing, protect your face with your hands and run.

Here are a few more tips that can help you coexist with wasps:

  • When eating outdoors, keep food and drinks covered, and clear away scraps or dirty plates as soon as the meal is over.
  • Set up baited yellow jacket traps around the edge of picnic areas or on the table – drown wasps caught by sinking the traps in a bucket of soapy water.
  • Feed pets indoors.
  • Use chemical wasp sprays with caution. Consider where the spray will land and follow the directions on the label.
    • Remove nests early in the season while they're still small.
    • Leave larger nests until the end of the season when the wasps die.
    • Never pour gas or kerosene into an underground wasp nest where it poisons the soil.
    • For nests that are large, consider using a professional pest control service.

Learn more about insect bites and stings, and spider bites