Hiker Nate Edmonds, expecting a peaceful day hike in Hitchiti Experimental Forest, a 5,000 acre federal forest adjacent to Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge in Jones County, Georgia, encountered the unexpected on Saturday, May 26, 2018.
Nate decided to hike that day on the Hitchiti Nature Trail, a 4 mile heavily trafficked loop, with a friend. Nate arrived early, then hiked a quarter mile down the trail to wait for his friend. As Nate was waiting, he heard something rustling through the woods. A coyote then loped onto the trail and entered into a stare-down with Nate.
Canis latrans, or the coyote, belongs to the Canis (canine) genus closely related genetically to wolves and domestic dogs. Coyotes perform important roles in nature, keeping populations of potentially destructive small omnivores and herbivores such as mice, rats, and rabbits in check. The coyote remains one of the most highly adaptable creatures in the animal kingdom, and displays its cleverness and resiliency by easily adapting to the ever-changing American landscape. Coyotes can be found in deserts, mountain ranges, forests, plains, and within towns and cities throughout the United States. Because of their intelligence, and ability to adapt to new conditions and environments, coyote numbers are at an all-time high.
Normally, the stealthy and wary coyote hunts nocturnally, and avoids humans at all cost. Hiker Nate had a very different experience May 26, however. Reporting the attack later, Nate stated: “Well, I’ve never seen a coyote that close period. I’m sure I’ve passed them many times in the woods, but their first inclination is to get away from you. It seemed like this one just found me out.”
Nate clapped and waved his arms trying to scare the animal, but it would not move. He tried to give a wide berth to the coyote, but it attacked, latching onto his boot unprovoked. Nate was able to kick the coyote off his boot, and hold it between his legs. The coyote bit his shin, but Nate then managed to grab his pocket knife and kill the animal.
Nate recognized that this was not normal coyote behavior, and called the local Sheriff’s department, which contacted Fish and Game authorities. The deceased coyote tested positive for the rabies virus, which infects the brain and can cause behavior dysfunctions including abnormal aggression. Nate underwent a series of 4 post-rabies vaccinations. After an allergic reaction and several days in the hospital, Nate is back at work and feeling better. “You really don’t expect to have an coyote encounter in an area where a lot of people walk,” said Nate. “I will certainly be changing my thoughts on that.”
According to the CDC, human rabies is rare in the United States, but is almost always fatal. Only 55 cases have been diagnosed since 1990. Between 16,000 and 39,000 people are vaccinated each year, however, as a precaution after animal bites. Rabies is far more common in other parts of the world, with about 40,000 – 70,000 rabies-related deaths worldwide each year.
Statistically, humans are much safer in the woods than in the city. Humans are significantly less likely to become the victim of a wild animal attack in the woods than to become a victim of violent crime in an urban area. But increasing urbanization and loss of wild coyote habitat throughout the United States have exposed affected coyotes more frequently to humans, decreasing their natural fear and wariness of man. Although rare, reports of coyote attacks on humans (and their pets) are thus increasing.
OUTDOOR SELF DEFENSE
Avoid the Encounter
The best defense when observing a carnivorous wild animal outdoors is to let nature be, and avoid an encounter entirely—do nothing to threaten the animal, observe from a safe distance, and either wait for the animal to move along on its own, retreat, or move around the animal, giving it a wide berth. This almost always leads to a safe outcome.
Unavoidable Unarmed Encounter
If you encounter any nocturnal animal during the daytime that is acting aggressively (stalking, growling, biting, etc.), stumbling, or displaying other erratic behavior, such as colliding with objects or eating atypical things, there is a good chance it may have rabies.
If a carnivorous animal focuses on you, rabid or not, and begins approaching you in a threatening matter, and you are without any significant weapons, it is time for you to play predator. Pretend you are getting ready for a bar fight—stand your ground, wave your arms, yell, cuss, hurl insults, throw rocks, swing a branch or hiking stick, and look fierce. If you turn and run, you will look like prey, which can instantly make you the final victim.
If you are attacked, fight to stay upright. Strike at tender areas of the face such as the nose or eyes with any object you have, or with your bare fists if necessary. Gouge the eyes if you can. Remain the aggressor as much as possible and fight fiercely until the end. Playing dead could be another option in some instances, with respect to bear attacks.
In the 1980s, I (the author) was mountain biking by myself on a large wilderness horse ranch at about 5,000 feet in the arid Chisos Mountains of West Texas, in the general vicinity of Big Bend National Park. Darkness was falling faster than expected, and I had lost my way off the trail. As I walked my bike trying to pick up the rocky trail again, I spied a big cat out of the corner of my eye, obviously stalking me. The mountain lion moved to a small dry bush 5 yards from me, and crouched down, watching me.
I’m happy to report that I avoided becoming lion stew that evening. I was so scared that I cursed at the mountain lion like a sailor, shook my bike at it, and made as loud a commotion as possible, all the while slowly retreating backwards down the mountain. Perhaps the lion was amused, but he did not follow me further. The next morning at breakfast, the ranch proprietor told me that the mountain lion that I encountered was most likely the one that had been killing their ranch colts. I’m sure I looked like a tasty colt on that mountain bike.
Bear Pepper Spray
Bear pepper spray, with at least 1-2% capsicum, provides the best non-lethal defense against wild animal attacks. Bear pepper spray can defend at a significant distance, and can effectively repel almost any aggressive carnivorous animal or human, of any size, that one in likely to encounter in the United States. Because bear pepper spray is lighter than most firearms, it is easier to pack into the back country, and can be packed into areas where firearms are prohibited.
Because it is non-lethal, bear pepper spray can be safer than a firearm to pack into outdoor areas around other people. It can be more effective also—because of its large body mass protecting its vital organs, a handgun is unlikely to stop a charging bear—but bear pepper spray potentially will.
Where appropriate, a wearable or packable lighter handgun, such as a concealed-carry style 9mm, may provide appropriate defense against smaller carnivores, such as against an attack by a rabid wild dog, coyote, or fox.
A 9mm is too small, however, to reliably defend against an attack from an aggressive larger animal with protected vital organs, such as any type of North American bear species. If you are carrying a firearm into the back country, pack nothing less than a .357 Magnum to guard against aggressive black bears, and nothing less than a .44 Magnum (or larger) for grizzlies, if you travel north to their territory.
My cousin Dale Vance worked in the 1970s and 1980s as an electrical engineer in the Alaskan back country mapping federal lands for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Dale told me that handguns frequently were not enough to stop a charging grizzly; when he and his companions worked out in the back country, they carried a 12 gauge shotgun with slug cartridges as their defense against aggressive grizzly or Alaskan brown bears. The shotgun slug’s much greater mass offered more stopping power, and a better chance at survival, than provided by the projectile of any handgun that they packed in.
Chad Cain, Hiker Attacked By Coyote In Middle Georgia, Georgia Outdoor News (May 31, 2018), http://www.gon.com/news/hiker-attacked-coyote-georgia
Coyote, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/c/coyote/
Jacob Hunter, Top 3 Weapons for Wilderness Survival, PrimalSurvivor, https://www.primalsurvivor.net/weapons-wilderness-survival/
Rich Johnson, How to Survive Wild Animal Attacks, Outdoor Life (February 16, 2010), https://www.outdoorlife.com/photos/gallery/hunting/2010/02/how-survive-wild-animal-attacks
News Reports, Rabid Coyote Attacks Georgia Hiker, Carolina Sportsman (June 13, 2018, 11:19 AM), https://www.carolinasportsman.com/details.php?id=15141
Rabies Vaccination Information Statement, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (October 6, 2009), https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/rabies.html
Vance R. Parker, JD, MBA, is an avid North Carolina outdoorsman, and estate planning, elder law, and special needs attorney, who also works to protect rural landowners, and drafts firearms trusts for sportsmen and sportswomen. He serves as Secretary of the North Carolina Rifle and Pistol Association (NCRPA.) Vance R. Parker’s legal practice, Vance Parker Law, PLLC, located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is A+ Rated by the NC Better Business Bureau.
Vance R. Parker also maintains the sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s law website NC Sportsmen’s Law News.
Additional thanks to legal assistant Kate Fritz, for article research.