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When animals attack: Death databases indicate that our fondest phobias may be misdirected

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Left: Although this python could probably consume a small child, according to the CDC’s death statistics it most likely won’t. [Credit: Rachel Nuwer]

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Messages warning us of the dangers of ferocious and venomous animals surround us. From the serpent lurking in the Garden of Eden to the critter villains in movies such as Jaws, it often seems the animal world is out to get us. But how many deaths do animals actually cause per year, and which species are really the ones to blame? The answer may surprise you.

At the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s WONDER site, compressed mortality figures for 1999-2007 can be neatly sorted by location, age, race, and gender. The database compiles official death information reported in the United States and assigns a detailed code for cause of death ranging from frostbite to falls.

From these figures, statistics for death caused by furry, scaly, or winged creatures can be calculated based upon the overall population of the United States. For example, the probability of getting eaten by a bear is 0.00007 out of 100,000 people. However, unless you’re a backpacker (or the grizzly man), most of us do not encounter bears on a daily basis. If statistics are broken down to include only backpackers, the risk goes up to 0.1 out of 100,000, although this probably isn’t enough of a risk to deter most nature enthusiasts from taking the gamble.

Right: Alligator wrestlers will be relieved to know that only nine people died from alligator or crocodile attacks in the United States between 1999-2007. [Credit: Rachel Nuwer]

Taking a look at venomous animals, a total of 714 people kicked the bucket after receiving a dose of animal-induced poison. Snakes come to mind as an obvious culprit. Listed as the fourth most common phobia in the United States, ophidiophobia affects millions though scientists disagree on whether this fear is an innate evolutionary hard wiring or a learned reaction. The CDC’s figures reveals, however, that only 59 people died from snake or lizard bites in the eight-year period between 1999-2007. Similarly, arachnophobia ranks just after ophidiophobia on the list of common fears, yet according to the CDC venomous spiders caused lights out for just 70 people.

If snakes and spiders account for only 18 percent of the venomous animal deaths over the eight year period, just where are these other figures coming from? Anyone who remembers the tragic ending to "My Girl" or the equally distressing "Invasion of the Bee Girls" is on the right track: bee, wasp, and hornet stings caused 509 of the 714 total venomous animal deaths, or about 71 percent. About 0.5 percent of children and three percent of adults are prone to anaphylaxis after contact with insect venom, a potentially fatal full-blown allergic response that can occur within seconds of exposure to an insect sting.

Left: If you encounter a beehive, best leave it alone or risk becoming a statistic! [Credit: Rachel Nuwer]

Like the bear attack example, though, not all death risks are created equally. Rather than backpackers, it seems that venomous animals such as bees are much more likely to claim the lives of men rather than women. Of the 509 deaths due to bees, wasps, and hornets, 412 of these—or 81 percent—were men. Unfortunately, the CDC does not categorize the scenarios or reasons behind death events, though we can speculate over the statistical discrepancy behind the gender divide. For example, men perhaps put themselves in positions more prone to encounter bees or wasps, like doing yard work, construction, or clearing timber. Stereotypical male behavior, though, most likely accounts for a fair number of these deaths. Just as poor little Macaulay Culkin’s first instinct upon seeing a beehive in "My Girl" was to poke it with a stick, men seem to be universally prone to such needlessly risky, even dumb behavior.

Although a healthy respect for venomous and dangerous animals can go a long way in avoiding potentially deadly situations, an out-and-out terror of spiders in the attic, alligators in the swimming pool, and snakes on a plane seems mostly unfounded and gives otherwise intriguing animals a bad rep. An accurate understanding of animal dangers—and better yet, how to avoid them—would be much more useful than unfounded phobias. And especially if you’re male, you’d better think twice before picking up that stick.

About the author: Rachel Nuwer is a graduate student at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Her keen interest in science and nature was fostered in the bayous of southern Mississippi. Taking this love to an extreme, she investigated illegal wildlife trade in the peat swamp forests of Vietnam for her ecology master’s thesis at the University of East Anglia, England. When not writing about science Rachel can be found taking photos, exploring the world, or rehabilitating stray kittens.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

 

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Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. themaninblack 1:11 pm 01/25/2011

    Great post. As pointed with hikers and bear attacks, location & occupation/activities can conspire to boost injury stats from certain animals above the national average, even if the animals are relatively docile and gentle. See this study on traumatic injuries received from dairy cows: http://bit.ly/g3Lytr

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtizzi 2:16 pm 01/25/2011

    I wonder what the stat is for hiking in my meat suit.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Slugg 2:24 pm 01/25/2011

    "Just as poor little Macaulay Culkin’s first instinct upon seeing a beehive in "My Girl" was to poke it with a stick, men seem to be universally prone to such needlessly risky, even dumb behavior."

    Why this man-bashing? Is that a scientifically important remark? 8-/

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  4. 4. Diesel67 3:55 pm 01/25/2011

    Why are we counting only fatal attacks? You don’t have to be killed to be traumatized by a wild or even domestic animal. Dogs are carnivores, programmed by millions of years of evolution to hunt, bite, kill and eat. A large running mammal, e.g. me, rings the dinner bell. I’d rather not be the dinner or even sustain a nonfatal bite. Thank you.

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  5. 5. cccampbell38 6:57 pm 01/25/2011

    Still and all, it is wise to take appropriate precautions when in an area that "belongs" to a potentially dangerous animal. I remember an occasion when a friend and I started a hike in an area where a cougar had attacked a jogger. Before we started he donned a pair of running shoes. I, of course, had on hiking boots. I asked why the ultralight footwear and he replied that he wanted to be able to run fast should a cougar come after us. I opined that even with the best track shoes there was no way that he could outrun a cougar. He replied that he had no intension of trying to outrun the cougar. All he needed to do was outrun me!

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  6. 6. RachelNuwer 7:09 pm 01/25/2011

    Thanks for the comment, Slugg. While I can’t quantify this remark scientifically I’m still waiting for someone to prove me wrong…!

    Diesel67: I definitely agree that non-fatal animal attacks, bites, and stings do count! However, the database I used is compiled only of information taken from death certificates issued in the United States. I’d definitely love to take a look at any other stats on non-fatal animal encounters if you know of them.

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  7. 7. sunnystrobe 1:36 am 01/26/2011

    Phobias seem to point back to our deep history past, whether pre- or human; it must have made much more sense then than now to BEWARE A BEAR! Ironically enough, they encroach more on us again because we have encroached on THEIR habitats! Global warming here in Australia also brings out the besties, much more than before.
    C.G. Jungk spoke of ‘the collective unconscious’, and our fairy tales are like treasure troves of ‘pickled’ memories of the beginnings of time (ours that is).
    Poking with sticks into bee- or termite hives is a favourite pastime of our closest cousins, David Attenborough has shown us, and as such a clear sign of higher intelligence, which is not gender-specific! The fact that S.A. readers sometimes tend to take some details a bit personal just shows we are social animals identifying with our fellow primates! It’s the old Eve’olution game all over again…

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  8. 8. oldvic 10:48 am 01/26/2011

    The flip side of some risky behaviour is, of course, the advantage of discovery.

    Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has helped save countless others.

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  9. 9. Beermathatman 12:00 pm 01/26/2011

    I think if we had always treated animals with love and respect we wouldn’t have to fear them now. Look at how some humans are able to walk with Lions and sleep in the same place with Gorilla’s.
    Beermathatman
    http://www.beermatsadvertising.com

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  10. 10. andyappleseed 5:10 pm 01/26/2011

    Hey, just FYI: that photo is not of a bee hive, but of a swarm looking for a new place to build a hive. Bee colonies build their hives in cavities most of the time, hollow trees and stuff. And they’re usually pretty docile if you don’t mess with them.

    Nature lovers: please check out this video project I’m working on and submit some photos take a minute to submit some photos—->

    http://umbellularia.com/2011/01/hey-nature-kids-quick-action/

    Link to this
  11. 11. outsidethebox 5:50 pm 01/26/2011

    It was my understanding that the animal most responsible for deaths in the US was deer (as in running into them with an automobile).

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  12. 12. all4kindness2all 1:42 pm 01/28/2011

    My mind was expanded today as I learned that attacks don’t only come in the form of bites/stings or result in deaths, but also there are shag-attacks. So I am wondering if more there are more attempted shagging than other types of attacks … not sure if death resulted, whether we would know.

    Still, I certainly thought there was a greater risk of death from snakes than there seems to be but then I realized that we are more likely to encounter bees and there are lots more of them. What’s also not clear from just the statistics is our likely accessibility to these attackers and the difference in how many we might likely encounter.

    Link to this
  13. 13. all4kindness2all 1:44 pm 01/28/2011

    My mind was expanded today as I learned that attacks don’t only come in the form of bites/stings or result in deaths, but also there are shag-attacks. So I am wondering if more there are more attempted shagging than other types of attacks … not sure if death resulted, whether we would know.

    Still, I certainly thought there was a greater risk of death from snakes than there seems to be but then I realized that we are more likely to encounter bees and there are lots more of them. What’s also not clear from just the statistics is our likely accessibility to these attackers and the difference in how many we might likely encounter.

    Link to this
  14. 14. RachelNuwer 3:03 pm 01/29/2011

    Thanks for your comment, Andy. The bees in the photo are honey bees from the U Minh peat swamp forests of southern Vietnam, specifically Apis dorsata. In the case of this species, they are quite aggressive and form their nests on free-standing branches such as the one pictured.

    Link to this
  15. 15. bucketofsquid 9:54 am 02/1/2011

    Thanks for the link. Oddly enough the first thing I thought of when reading the article was cow related injuries. I’m very surprised there were no deaths.

    Link to this
  16. 16. bucketofsquid 9:56 am 02/1/2011

    It isn’t "man-bashing" when you state a proven truth.

    Link to this

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