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Encounters of the worst kind

How an obsession with animal attack literature led to a new appreciation of the wild

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Whenever I would tell someone from my East Coast hometown that I was moving to Montana, they'd jokingly advise, "Don't get eaten by a bear!" I chuckled along with them until I arrived in the fall of 2004 to find that—much like dying in a tornado in Kansas—it was rare, but it happened. Just when I'd start to forget I was living on the edge of a vast wilderness, there'd be an article in the local paper to remind me that, yep, there was a chance a wild animal could pounce at any moment. A cougar sighted near a school bus stop, flicking its rope-like tail and ostensibly looking for the weakest child. Or—who could forget?—a Frenchtown woman forced to fend off an aggressive black bear with a large homegrown zucchini.

Not long after I got to Missoula, I decided to arm myself with knowledge. I pursued the extensive collection of animal attack literature at a local gas station. Each book had big, red, dripping fonts and pictures of animals at their worst on their covers. Grizzlies standing at full height with teeth bared. Cougars with claws extended, ears back and eyes wild. I spent a few minutes deciding between Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind and Bear Attacks of the Century: True Stories of Courage and Survival, but ultimately made the only sensible decision for someone living in a state heavily populated with wild beasts. I bought both.

During the next few weeks, I read hundreds of accounts of wild animal attacks in North America. I had a classic horror movie reaction to the stories: I relished them, I was frightened by them and I was sure I could do a better job than the victims in the stories. In some perverse way, I realized I wanted these terrifying scenarios to happen to me. Even more strangely, the authors also assumed their readers wanted a chance to go one-on-one against nature's most highly evolved predators.

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Here's a typical cougar attack account from E. Boyd Hilderbrand, a man who lived near Barriere Lake in British Columbia in the 1920s:

The cougar had crouched and was already in the middle of an open-jawed, death-dealing spring. She came sailing at me as if she'd been shot from a circus cannon—a heart-stopping vision of hate-filled eyes, white teeth and hook-rimmed paws. In one instinctive lunge, I threw myself down and to one side. The cat sailed by, practically combing my whiskers with a vicious hooking swipe as she passed. If she'd ever landed on bare ground I wouldn't be telling this story. But when she hit that deep, wet snow and tried to turn, she momentarily lost her footing. In the extra second it took her to get her feet gathered, I had time to half roll and twist and face her charge.

There was no time to worry about snow in the barrel. I thrust the pistol in her face and felt, more than heard, the staccato hammering as I ran a full magazine of slugs into her oncoming head and body. She died in midstride, falling within inches of my outstretched leg. It would be foolish to say I wasn't scared, but at a time like that the will to survive overcomes all fear.

Hilderbrand's story hits on some of the major themes of a pulp non-fiction animal attack account. It contains the borderline-unnatural circus cannon leap, the possibly jammed gun and a delightful half-roll evasion attempt. In the end, the cougar dies just inches from the animal attack victim. The fewer inches between the cougar's body and yours at the end of the attack, the better the story. How could you not want this to happen to you? Think about how popular you'd be at parties. Think about the conversation-starter scar. It would be an episode that changed your life, as long as you didn't die.

It's a feeling I'd gotten a few times before: the guilty, unexplainable tinge of excitement that comes along with airplane turbulence—perhaps I could save the lives of everyone even though I am not located in an exit row! Or the slight yearning I get when watching zombie apocalypse movies—surely, when the real zombie apocalypse takes place, I will have an opportunity to prove my worth in a way I never could at my day job! It's the same feeling you get when the meteorologist predicts a huge, crippling storm that will likely cost lives—and then nothing happens. You say you're relieved, but really you're disappointed you didn't even lose electricity. A diverted disaster is a good thing in theory, but it also means that nothing happened.




There are a few things you should know about gas station wild animal attack books. To begin, most retellings of wildlife attacks involving survivors follow a pretty common outline:

1. A normal person is partaking in a normal activity on a normal day.

2. They think they hear something, but assume it is a normal noise due to the normalness of the day.

3. They are attacked out of nowhere. In most cases, the animal is either running faster than humans thought possible or flying through the air in a long blur.

4. In the single moment before the attack begins, the victims have a deep thought about life and nature.

5. The victims struggle for their lives, often while trying to reach for a log or load a gun. Their companion, if they have one, is blissfully unaware of the attack and just a few hundred yards away, possibly picking berries or otherwise enjoying the glories of the outdoors.

6. The victim survives the attack and crawls a few miles back to civilization. They usually need a titanium plate in their head or a glass eyeor, if they survive with minimal wounds, the book is sure to mention something about emotional trauma.

7. The animal is hunted down and killed. Experts determine it was neither rabid nor starving at the time of the attack, but merely a healthy, mysterious, unpredictable wild animal.

The last point is especially interesting. It's an ongoing theme in these wildlife attack books that the animals in question are perfectly sane. Many stories end with a line similar to: "The bear's body was tested for rabies—but the results were negative." Or perhaps: "During the animal's autopsy, researchers discovered the cougar wasn't starving—it had a belly full of venison."

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