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From Selfies with Mama Bears to Bison, We May be Losing Our Sense of Self-Preservation

Despite numerous warnings, people still approach wildlife in national parks, putting themselves and the animals at risk.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Feb 15, 2024 2:00 PMFeb 15, 2024 6:00 PM
danger bison sign yellowstone
(Credit: Checubus/Shutterstock)


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In August 2023, a video of a mother bear and her two little cubs at Yellowstone National Park went viral. The clip didn’t circulate the web because of the precious baby bears. Instead, it went viral because of how the tourists reacted when they saw the bears.

At first, people stopped their cars and stared at the bears in a field next to the roadway. The bears ignored the humans, even as some got out of their cars and stood at a distance in the road.

Then, a van pulled up, and passengers quickly jumped out. Three men — one of them holding a young girl — began sprinting toward the mother bear and her cubs. Another tourist crossed the street with her camera and moved closer as well.

It is extremely dangerous to approach a mother bear with her cubs, which is why some researchers are starting to question if and why we have lost our fear of dangerous animals or situations.

Why Aren’t People Afraid Of Wild Animals?

Psychologist Katherine Kortenkamp was at Yellowstone when another visitor prompted an idea for a study.

“I saw a woman and her baby go right up to a bison and pose for a picture. It was motivation to understand these risky behaviors and how to reduce them,” says Kortenkamp, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

In her 2021 study in the Journal of Outdoor Tourism and Recreation, Kortenkamp and her co-authors wanted to understand why people would ignore warning signs. They recruited participants who had been hiking in a natural area within the past year with a mean age of around 19 years old.

The participants were given four risky outdoor scenarios: warnings of falling rocks, hiking in a lightning storm, coming too close to the edge of a cliff, and approaching a bison. The descriptions varied, including the framing of the message. Some used a negative approach to warn against possible risks.

Participants rated the likelihood of getting hurt in outdoor situations, and they also answered questions that allowed the researchers to measure their risk attitudes and self-exempting beliefs.

The study found that self-exempting beliefs were a greater predictor than risk attitudes as to whether someone would hike and get hurt. 

(Credit:PT Hamilton/Shutterstock)

What Are Self-Exempting Beliefs?

Self-exempting beliefs occur when a person knows there is a risk involved but perceives themselves as exempt from the danger. Kortenkamp says self-exempting beliefs are often used to study people who smoke.

Studies show that smoking can cause many serious health issues, and smokers with self-exempting beliefs seem to think those health issues don't apply to them.

When it comes to self-exempting beliefs and dangerous animals, Kortenkamp says national parks put up warnings about not getting too close to wildlife. Yet, people try to cozy up to a bison for a selfie as if those rules are meant for other people.

Read More: Your Guide to Staying Safe While Visiting National Parks

Why Do People Think The Rules Don’t Apply To Them?

There are multiple reasons why people develop self-exempting beliefs. Kortenkamp says familiarity and experience can play a role. If a person has seen bison at national parks and has never seen them charge people before, they come into the situation with a sense of familiarity. They may perceive the risk of approaching a bison as small and the warning signs posted by park officials as overly dramatic.

“You see these animals, and for the most part, they seem harmless. Their normal behavior isn’t a charging behavior,” Kortenkamp says. “The evidence before your eyes is telling you the risk isn’t that high. The signs are there because the parks have to post them, but there are all these people, and the animals are so calm.”

Is the Risk Worth It?

(Credit: Jennifer Jessica Peck/Shutterstock) Whistler, British Columbia, Canada-March 27, 2023: A Fed Bear Is A Dead Bear sign in Whistler Village.

For the tourists and the mother bear, their van pulled up, they hopped out, and then they sprinted toward the wildlife. The tourists didn’t seem to think through the danger they faced by threatening a wild animal.

In their study, Kortenkamp says they measured how participants felt an action was worth the risk. “People will say, ‘I don’t think the risk is that high, getting a thrill is worth the risk,” Kortenkamp says. 

Though it may seem "worth the risk" for the person seeking the thrill of approaching wildlife, they often forget that people are also a threat to wildlife. When wild animals in national parks attack or harm a person, the National Park Service is usually forced to euthanize that animal.

How Many People Are Killed By Wildlife Each Year?

The mother bear didn’t turn on the tourists in the end. Instead, she and her cubs fled the field. Most people in national parks also come across wild animals and walk away unscathed. But there have been incidents when people were injured after they got too close. 

Bears or bison don’t injure most people they encounter in the wild. A 2018 study in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine examined all animal-related fatalities entered into a database with The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2008 to 2015.

The study found that 1,610 people were killed by animals in that time frame, so an average of about 200 per year. Most were killed by farm animals like horses or cows. Almost 30 percent died after being stung by an insect like a bee, hornet, or wasp. Other animal-related fatalities were due to venomous animals such as spiders or snakes. 

Read More: What You Should Do If You Encounter A Bear

How Many People Are Attacked By Wildlife At National Parks?

A 2018 study in One Health looked at injury and fatality data at Yellowstone for the years 2000-2015 to determine how many people were attacked by wildlife.

The study found 25 injuries from wildlife, and almost all were visitors to the park. Eighty percent actually approached the animal, and 20 percent failed to retreat. All of the injuries happened in high-traffic incidents.

Which Animals Attack The Most At National Parks?

In the Yellowstone study, bison injured more people than any other animal. Most people were injured after they approached the bison to take a photograph. On average, most of the people were only about 10 feet away from the bison, far closer than the recommended 60 feet.

Yet, only 24 percent of the people injured admitted they came too close to the animal.

All national parks hand out maps and literature warning park guests not to approach or feed wildlife. While animals can harm or attack you, you could also cause them to lose their lives — all because a selfie seemed to be worth the risk.

Read More: 5 Unique Animals That Call the National Parks Home

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