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

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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.

 

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

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