You might not think it by looking at them, but Bambi and his hoofed friends pack a serious wallop. Depending on the situation and time of year, deer and moose can be deadlier than a sharp-toothed predator. Here’s what you need to know to keep those crushing hooves and sharp antlers away on your next US holiday.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Deer and moose are not always the docile creatures they appear to be. The US Centres for Disease Control estimates non-livestock mammals like deer, elk and moose account for about 52 deaths in the US every year. And that doesn’t include all of the fatalities caused by deer-related vehicle collisions, which push the number well above 200 deaths and $US1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) in property damage each year. You’re most likely to encounter wild deer while on a camping holiday in the US, however, while deer are not as prevalent in Australia, the Australian population of the introduced species has been expanding in recent years.
The danger posed by the common whitetail deer and mule deer usually comes down to three things: Their sheer abundance all over the US, mother does trying to protect their fawns and bucks being aggressive during mating season. In several parts of the US, deer encounters are incredibly common, especially in the northern states, which makes them dangerous for drivers in rural areas. And when it comes to does protecting their fawns, they will stop at nothing to keep their young safe.
Bucks, however, are the most dangerous of the bunch. As Gordon Grice explains in The Book of Deadly Animals, bucks go to extreme lengths for mating privileges and territorial control:
White-tailed deer bucks have been found in dead pairs, their antlers tangled and locked so tightly they couldn’t extricate themselves. They died of thirst or stress. The truculence of deer can go further than that. I know of one case in which a buck was found with the decapitated head of another locked in its antlers. Biologists posited that the living buck picked a fight with an already dead rival and tore his head off.
In short, bucks are crazy. And when it’s mating season, they aren’t afraid of anything. They will attack hikers in the wilderness, gore people tending their gardens and there have been multiple cases of bucks busting through the windows of houses and business because they saw their own reflection in the glass. Some bucks will even hold a grudge, like one that attacked a driver after they had hit it with their car.
As with most wild animal encounters, prevention is key. The two biggest warning signs you need to look out for are antlers and fawns, especially during certain times of the year. Deer rut, or mate, in autumn (usually between late September and early December in the US, though this can extend to January or February in hotter areas). That’s the time to be on the lookout for testosterone-charged bucks with antlers. Craig Stowers, coordinator of the California state deer program, notes that spring time can also be dangerous since that’s when does are most protective of their fawns.
No matter what time of year it is, though, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommend you avoid deer at all costs (unless you have a permit to hunt them in that area). A doe might look like it’s all alone, but mother deer will hide their fawns in brush and tall grass, so they could be nearby. And never attempt to pet or feed a wild deer. Not only is it dangerous, but feeding deer is against the law in several US states, including California, Florida and Alaska. Also, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a leash when you go for walks or hikes. And no matter what, never spray your body or clothes with elk or deer scent. They will think you’re a deer and act accordingly.
If you encounter a deer and it starts to change its stance and ear posture, or begins to stomp its feet or huff, slowly back away from it and avoid the area for a few weeks. Remember, it’s likely protecting its territory or protecting its babies. If you leave it’s unlikely to chase you. If you got too close and it starts to approach you, wave a coat or other object in the direction of the deer or use it to make yourself appear larger, shout at the animal and make plenty of loud noises while you try to back away. Do not turn your back on the animal.
If it charges you, Rich Johnson at Outdoor Life suggests you put something between you and the deer, especially if it’s a buck. A backpack, rock or large stick might keep you from getting stuck. Continue trying to leave the area, or climb a nearby tree or other high spot so the deer can’t reach you. If you get knocked down, curl up into the fetal position and protect your neck, head and vital organs. The deer might stomp and poke you a little bit, but eventually it will lose interest when it realises you’re not a threat (as shown in the suspenseful video above.) In rare instances when a buck is extremely aggressive and won’t let up, some people have had success grabbing the animal by the antlers and wrestling it to the ground until it tires itself out.
If you give a moose a muffin, it will probably mess you up. Moose are the largest types of deer, and also the most dangerous. Because of their size, they aren’t afraid of much, and will charge people, houses, snowmobiles and even utes. In fact, a bull moose can stand at over 1.8m tall and weigh nearly 680kg. Compared to a whitetail buck at about 68kg, moose are monstrous. That means you need to handle encounters with them a little differently.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, you should back away from the moose slowly with your hands in the air, palms facing the moose. While you back away, speak to the moose softly, not loudly, as if you were reassuring a child. It may give you a few “bluff” charges as a warning, but you should take them all seriously.
Unlike most other wild animal encounters, running is actually your best move if a moose gets too close to you. They won’t chase you very far, and you can manoeuvre around a tree or large rock much faster than a moose can. Also, they usually charge and try to kick you with their front hooves, and that movement can give you a decent lead if you take off into a sprint. As with other deer, if it knocks you down, curl up into a ball to protect your vital areas and feign death. It may continue to stomp on you, but if you hold still it will eventually lose interest and move on. Don’t get up until it has moved far away from you, though, or it may try to attack again.
Dogs are also a much bigger liability when it comes to moose. Fido might be able to scare off some whitetail deer, but moose are used to attacks from canine predators and will view dogs as enemies even if they aren’t barking or growling. They may even go out of their way to kick your dog if you’re not careful. Make sure your dog is on a leash at all times in moose country, and give moose an extremely wide berth if you encounter one.
This is part of Lifehacker’s Animal Attacks Series. As capable as we humans think we are, bears, snakes, wolves, sharks, and even bees can turn a fun day outside into a harsh, potentially life-threatening reality check. Here’s what to do when you find yourself face to face with some of the deadliest beasts in the great outdoors.