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September 1998

Wildlife Body Language

When faced with a large, testy animal, it pays to know whether it's saying, "Hi there" or "I'm about to shred your lungs."

Alarm

“When an animal pricks up its ears and stares at you, it’s showing alarm. There’s stress going on. You’re too close for its comfort,” says Greg Kurz, a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park. An animal that’s alarmed is not relaxed and is suddenly alert. If it’s feeding, it’ll quickly stop. If it’s walking, it may change direction. If standing, it may move away or suddenly turn to face you. Animals that feel they’re being preyed upon will back up, keeping as much distance as possible between you.

Some animals have unique ways of expressing alarm. A beaver slaps its tail on the water. A pronghorn antelope flares the hair on its rump. A deer “flags” its white tail over its back as it hightails it to safer ground. An opossum plays dead by going limp, closing its eyes, and lolling its tongue.

“Skunks and rabbits beat their feet on the ground when they’re alarmed,” says Vince Yannone, an independent wildlife consultant who has more than 30 years of experience with animals in the wild. “And if you startle a coyote, the hair on its back goes up. It gets stiff-legged and flattens its ears.”

Some alarmed ducks and other birds, such as the killdeer, will feign broken wings and flap across the water or flutter across the ground in an attempt to lure you from nearby nests where eggs or hatchlings are hidden.

In short, an alarmed animal is issuing warnings, either to you or its kin. When you see these signs, back off. An alarmed animal is under stress and may become aggressive or flee habitat critical to its survival. (Hikers persistently approaching bighorn sheep in California’s Santa Rosa Mountains eventually drove the animals from an important watering hole.) Alarmed animals also expend extra energy, and may even abandon their young.

Aggression

Sometimes, when you’ve failed to recognize the early warnings and have invaded an animal’s space, it will stand its ground and confront you. This aggressive behavior is dangerous to both you and the animal.

“Animals that become aggressive are generally protecting their young or food, or they’re startled by your presence,” says Yannone. “I had a squirrel charge me once because her young crawled under the corner of my tent.”

I would have felt differently about the three Montana mountain lions, for instance, if instead of lying quietly but alertly, they had crouched and crept in my direction, or bared their teeth and swatted their paws. Those would have been clear signs of aggression, and a possible attack.

Yannone advises responding with body language. “When an animal is showing aggression, every move you make, whether you’re conscious of it or not, sends a reply. In most cases you need to stand tall. Make yourself look big. Pick up a large stick. Back away slowly. You’ll tell the animal that you’re too big to be messed with and have no desire to pick a fight.”

It can take years to understand the subtleties of communicating with animals. But if you take the time to learn some of their basic language, the natives will be friendlier and your backcountry visits will be safer.

Sam Curtis talks to the animals near his home in Bozeman, Montana.

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