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Presumably every nature TV host has had that one early experience with nature that ends up shaping their career – the thrill of first glimpsing a rare species perhaps, or interacting with a wild animal for the first time. For Casey Anderson, host of National Geographic's “America the Wild” and Kinect Nat Geo TV (an eight-episode series of interactive shows for the Xbox 360), it was a little more intense. While working at one of his first jobs at a Montana wildlife preserve, Anderson tried to intervene in a fight between wolves. He was attacked by the entire pack, but he was able to narrowly escape thanks to thick coveralls.
"I'm standing there in what are now Carhartt Daisy Dukes, and I had to get right back on the horse," he recalls. "Now I look back and realize I had done everything wrong. This was my dream job and I nearly got killed." Thankfully, Anderson is still alive and well and able to tell us what to do when you bump into a mountain lion, why playing dead can get you killed, and why you should never try to win a shootout with a bear.
Do your research.
It should go without saying that you shouldn't just wander off into the hinterlands without a basic amount of prep work. Yet we've all gawked at YouTube videos of people doing it anyway. Anderson suggests taking a bit of time to get a feel for the terrain via maps (which you should also carry), and knowing what potentially threatening animals are native to the area and possible hot spots you should avoid.
Anderson is quick to point out, though, that being fearful is bad for everyone involved. "Because we've sensationalized these animals, most people walk out into their world with fear, and that is your worst enemy," he says. "You need to understand where you're going, what the dangers are, and then take the precautions to avoid them. Blindly walking into these animals' world without having any understanding of them is disrespectful – and you're kind of asking for trouble."
Today, preparation is easier than ever, with every national park and likely every state park having a website listing all the info you'd need before heading in.
Keep your distance.
If you spot a wild animal, the desire to approach and interact with it is perfectly understandable. It's also completely stupid and irresponsible. "Never approach any animal in the wild," Anderson says. "As a human moving through their world, they look at you as a threat no matter your intentions, and so you can trigger their fight-or-flight response."
The problem is that no matter how tame that deer at Yosemite or bison at Yellowstone may seem, they're still wild at heart and will react to cues you give off that you may not even realize. Instead, carry a pair of binoculars to observe them in their natural environment and give them some distance: 25 meters for big game and at least 100 meters (or ideally much more) for predators like bears and wolves. "Every year, you read stories about someone thinking bears are like teddy bears, or they put their kid on the back of a bison to get a picture taken," Anderson says. "And every year, someone gets injured or killed."
Be cool like Fonzie.
Anderson says that shrieking, screaming, running or any other form of panic is a bad idea. "When you scream or run, it instantly telegraphs one of two possible things to an animal," Anderson explains. "You are prey, or you are something in distress that needs to be quieted down so you don't draw unwanted attention or competition from other animals."
While it's hard to know how you'll react if you encounter a deadly animal in the flesh, Anderson says you should mentally steel yourself to the possibility before entering the wilderness. Then, when the occasion arises, channel Arthur Fonzarelli: "Put your hands to the side and say aloud in a steady calming voice, 'Hey, Mr. Bison, sorry I got too close. I'm going to back up out of here and leave you alone,' and do literally just that." The idea is that while they won't understand your words, obviously, your intent will be reflected in your body language and keep the confrontational energy at bay. Then go back from where you came and count your lucky stars."
Don't (always) play dead.
Anderson insists that remaining cool and calmly backing away from animals is always the way to go. Almost always, that is. When it's obvious that your competition is riled up, things change instantly. If it's because you simply surprised the animal, then making yourself passive, avoiding eye contact and playing dead actually works pretty well.
But if you've been deemed prey, then you're going to have to man up. "In that situation, if you play dead, you may as well sprinkle salt and pepper over yourself," Anderson says. While you should avoid eye contact with wild animals to calm them down, do the opposite if it's clear they plan to attack. "Be assertive and firm towards the animal – you want to look big and strong, so hold yourself with good posture, speak forcefully, and say 'I am not prey' while holding your ground." Anderson says.
Obviously, it's dicey, but avoid screaming and waving your arms (actions that will cause a predator to want to quiet you by attacking), and don't turn and try to run. That will instantly trigger their predator instincts, and makes the killing all the more fun for them.
Leave the Glock at home.
If you aren't hunting, then Anderson strongly advises against carrying a firearm as a self-defense tool against predators. "Statistically, it's horrible," he says. "Like, 50 percent of people who use a firearm against an attacking grizzly end up being mauled severely." Predators are far quicker than humans, and you just aren't Jesse James, friend. So while you might be fast enough to pop off a shot, unless you instantly kill whatever is attacking, you're only going to put the animal in enraged fight mode.
Anderson instead suggests always carrying bear pepper spray, which will dissuade any animal from getting anywhere near you. "When you spray bears, suddenly they can't breathe and their eyes burn and their whole world is taken away," he says. "Bears aren't in a fight anymore – they just want to get away from this miserable moment." An added benefit is that the animal will consequently avoid other humans from then on.
Hire a guide.
A walk in the woods or a leisurely hike takes on a whole new meaning when you're in big game or predator country. While it may seem stuffy or even wussified, hiring a professional guide can take an otherwise ordinary visit and really maximize your experience.
"I think guides are great, and going out into a new environment with them is a great jump-off point," Anderson says. "They understand the habitat, can find animal tracks, understand where they are during certain times of the day or what they're eating certain times of the year. You'll learn something and they'll keep you safe."