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Wildlife and Running: Be Alert!

On a run last week, I was about to turn onto Fuller Road just past that marshy pond across from the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering when a Canadian goose hissed, spread his wings, and charged me in a threatening manner. He quickly lost interest when it was clear that I was not after the goslings and I was able to continue on my way.

Slowly back away

My near miss reminded me of other close encounters with wild animals while running. More than once, skunks in downtown Albany have caused me to quickly revise my planned route. Lesson learned? Headlamps are not only helpful for avoiding uneven pavement; they also allow you to see the critters up ahead.

One of these will help you to see these from a distance
(If you don’t smell them first…)

There was also that memorable time that I turned onto Thackery Drive from New Scotland Road and encountered at least a dozen deer. The herd was unimpressed and, contrary to my expectations, unafraid of humans. They stayed on the road and I gave them a wide berth. On the downhill just before the bridge crossing Normans Kill, I noticed that a deer was bounding alongside me. My first thought was, “Wow, this is exhilarating.” My second thought was, “Please don’t crash into me.”

Finally, when I was running in rural South Carolina several summers ago, I saw something long and dark – and slithering – by the side of the road. Snake! I gave it plenty of space. It turned out to be a harmless eastern rat snake, but I wasn’t carrying my snake spotter’s guide and didn’t feel like taking a chance.

My snake interaction reminded me that some encounters with wild animals are potentially dangerous and all runners, particularly when running on trails, should be aware of what to do when they meet more aggressive wildlife. Snakes, for instance, tend to be nonaggressive unless surprised. In the spring, they like to sun themselves on rocks, so it is important to be alert when running in places with broad flat exposures. When scrambling up technical terrain on a trail run, remain aware of where you are putting your hands and feet.

Give this guy some space

Another rule of thumb for wild animals is to give them space. Moose, for instance, are rather placid, but if you surprise them on the trail, they can charge and you will lose. Black bears are actually rather timid unless they have gotten used to people because trash has been left out. If a bear appears to be aggressive when you encounter it, make noise and make yourself big. Do not run away or climb a tree, because this is replicating prey behavior. You do not want to be prey.

Give this guy even more space

This should also be your response when encountering big cats on the trails. Bobcats are unimpressed by humans; we’re too slow to be a threat and too big to be prey. Bobcats do roam around New England woods, so keep your eyes open. It is highly unlikely that they will be aggressive. Mountain lions, on the other hand, have been known to attack runners. A runner died in a mountain lion attack in Colorado in 1991 and in California in 1994. Although mountain lions are not something we really have to worry about unless traveling, there are persistent rumors that the eastern mountain lion might not be as extinct as previously thought. In any case, if you see a mountain lion, make noise, make yourself big, and start throwing stuff. It turns out that one of our best defenses against wild animals is to make noise. Talking in a loud firm voice reminds predators that you are not prey. Deer don’t talk.

Give this guy the most space

Most wild animal encounters while running can be positive experiences that help us connect more directly with nature. Once, I saw a bald eagle while running trails at Tawasentha Park and it is always fun to see deer bounding off while running trails at Thacher State Park. Just remember to pay attention when on the trails (snakes!) and on city streets (skunks!) and you can add another dimension to your running by enjoying the wildlife.

Nearly every runner has some great stories about his or her encounters with wildlife. Did you have a “close call?” Do you have any advice for handling wildlife encounters while running? Please tell us all about it in the comments.

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