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Animal enemies: Myth vs. reality

By Marsha Walton (CNN Sci-Tech)

Car accidents involving deer and other animals on roads cost dozens of human lives and millions of dollars in insurance claims each year.
Car accidents involving deer and other animals on roads cost dozens of human lives and millions of dollars in insurance claims each year.

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CNN's Ann Kellan reports on the deadliest U.S. creatures (September 24)
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(CNN) -- Forget the lions, tigers, and bears. Toss out the sharks, the alligators, even the poisonous snakes.

When it comes to humans' worst enemies in the animal world, don't think big. Or sharp teeth. Or even mean.

Hollywood and fairy tales may demonize the shark and the big bad wolf. But the animal that claims far more lives in the United States is one that many people urge their kids to walk up and touch at the petting zoo.

Yes, Bambi.

It's not because they attack, but because hapless deer wander onto roadways that they and other creatures claimed 83 human lives in car crashes in 2000, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation .

Tens of thousands of deer are killed when hit by cars. Erie Insurance, which keeps detailed records on car vs. deer claims, says the number of claims increased from 23,000 in 2000 to 26,000 in 2001, up 16 percent. That company alone spent $50 million on car/deer accidents in 2001, the vast majority of their claims in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

In spite of lots of hyped movies and media coverage, the Florida Museum of Natural History reports that sharks killed five humans in 2001, down from 12 in 2000. In the United States, alligators and crocodiles have killed on average one person a year for the past 30 years, says the University of Florida.

While the big bad wolf may be the villain of fairy tales, this animal doesn't even cause a blip on the radar screen when it comes to animal/human conflict. Brad DeVries of the Defenders of Wildlife says there are no records of wolves killing a person in the United States.

But the wolf's "tamer" cousin does not always live up to the motto of man's best friend. From 1979 to 1996, dog bites killed 340 people in the United States, with most of the fatalities involving children 14 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While Rottweilers and pit bulls were responsible for more than half of those deaths, experts stress that it's not fair to condemn a breed for what's usually the sin of its owner. Dozens of breeds, from dachshunds to Yorkshire terriers have caused deaths.

"Quite likely the kind of person who was an irresponsible owner of a Doberman in the '70s is the same kind of person who is an irresponsible owner of a Rottweiler in the '90s or a Presa Canario in 2002," said Dr. Randall Lockwood, an animal behavior expert.

Most dog attacks, Lockwood says, are predictable and preventable, the result of an owner's failure to properly raise, train, socialize and supervise an animal. That's often the result of the wrong dog for the wrong reason.

"Getting a dog as an offensive or defensive weapon is a lot like having a loaded handgun in the nightstand," said Lockwood. Usually a child, a family member, or a neighbor is the one who gets harmed. In his studies of more than 300 fatal dog attacks over the past 25 years, he says just one was a burglar.

Although grizzlies and black bears are ferocious, the actual number of human deaths from bear attacks is a tame one.
Although grizzlies and black bears are ferocious, the actual number of human deaths from bear attacks is a tame one.

Black bears and grizzly bears killed 133 people in North America in the past century, six more in 2000 and 2001, according to Steve Herrero with the University of Calgary. But each year across the United States and Canada, there are millions of uneventful human/bear encounters.

The current population is about 700,000 black bears, and 60,000 grizzlies on the continent, says Herrero, professor emeritus of environmental science. He's spent more than 10,000 hours studying grizzlies, and has written and produced books and videos on bears and keeping safe if you confront one.

He says the usual reason for injury or death is a too-sudden encounter, when the bear perceives the human to be too close. Usually, he says, in those defensive situations the bear simply growls and runs.

Surviving a confrontation can be accomplished, says Herrero. Sometimes you can just "talk it down" like you would an enraged, out of control human being. If that's not working, there are effective cayenne pepper bear sprays on the market now that give the human enough time to escape. Playing dead can work, he says, but if you have no other choice, and if the bear is being offensive, just attack the bear all you can, with a stick, a stone, a knife, or smack it on the nose. Usually the encounters last two to 10 seconds, but in that time they can inflict terrible injuries, says Herrero.

The number of bear attacks in North America has gone up in the past 50 years, mostly, says Herrero, because more and more people are working, camping, and hiking in what was their turf for many years. Ten people were killed in the 1950s, 14 in the '60s, 22 in the '70s, 27 in the '80s, 29 in the '90s

The critter that humans should fear the most usually is dismissed as a mere annoyance, a pest at a picnic or the pool. But the disease-carrying mosquito, delivering encephalitis, the West Nile virus, malaria, and Dengue fever, makes it far and away the deadliest beast in the animal world. The World Health Organization says mosquitos cause more than 2 million deaths a year worldwide. Another insect, the tsetse fly, kills another 66,000 annually.

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