Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Staying Safe While Working With Wild Animals

On Thursday June 28, Andrew Oberle, a primatology graduate student from the University of Texas at San Antonio, was viciously attacked by chimpanzees while giving a tour at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden Sanctuary, a chimpanzee rescue center in eastern South Africa. According to the Associated Press, Andrew crossed between two safety fences that separated the chimps from the tourists in order to retrieve a rock that the chimps would use to throw at tourists. It was then that two chimps grabbed Andrew’s feet and pulled him under the inner electric fence, biting him severely and dragging him for nearly a kilometer (half a mile). The sanctuary director fired two shots into the air to scare the chimps away from Andrew, but by that point, he had already sustained many severe injuries, including fractures and the loss of fingers and part of an ear. (CNN reports slightly different details).

Andrew Oberle at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden Sanctuary.
Photo from the HelpAndrewOberle Facebook page.
Andrew’s mom, Mary Flint, said her son has been passionate about chimps since the seventh grade. Andrew knew the risks involved in working with primates in general and especially with chimpanzees with a history of abuse, but that was not enough to prevent this horrific accident. There are many of us, like Andrew, that are passionate, adventurous and curious enough to pursue careers working with wild animals. I asked our community of field biologists, lab animal researchers, zoo and aquarium workers, wildlife rehabilitators, wildlife guides and educators, animal trainers and veterinarians for stories and advice on how we can do what we love and stay safe doing it. The responses poured in. Here are some of our lessons and stories:

Know your animals.

This includes knowing the natural history and behaviors of the species you will be interacting with, training in and using appropriate precautions (safety gloves?), and recognizing and responding effectively to threat or fear indicators. Know what stimuli your animals are particularly sensitive to. A journalist on a photography safari in Tanzania cut his head on a timber beam in camp. The next day, their driver inched their Land Cruiser up to a group of lionesses for a photograph when one of the lionesses began to approach the vehicle while sniffing the air, likely following the blood scent. This group was smart enough to give up the photo opportunity and drive away.

You also need to know the specific population or individual animals you will work with. Are they hungry or well-fed? Do they have experience with humans? Researchers working with American alligators note that populations that have been fed by humans are much more dangerous than those that have no human experience. This is true of many other species as well. Were the animals abused? Do they have a history of aggression or anxiety? In the case of the chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden Sanctuary, many of them have been rescued from abusive situations and have abnormally high levels of fear and aggression as a result.

If you can read the animals you are working with, you will be better able to avoid postures they may perceive as threatening (such as approaching them directly or with quick motions, using eye contact, and showing your teeth). Hopefully this will help prevent a dangerous animal reaction, but will also help you to prepare if an animal does attack.

Give them space.

Most animals have a comfort zone, just like we do. If you get in their personal space, they are likely to feel threatened. Sometimes we get in an animal’s comfort zone on purpose because it is part of the job, and this is when training and protective gear is vital. Even more dangerous is when we unknowingly get in an animal’s comfort zone and provoke a startle response in everyone involved. One wildlife guide did not realize how close he had gotten to some elephants standing behind bushes. They were apparently caught off-guard too and responded by chasing him to his car… and then after his car! But these surprises can happen closer to home too. In the field I always check my boots before I put them on: You never know what snake, scorpion, or spider may have snuggled into them for the night. But I often forgot to check my clothes. That changed after a tarantula crawled out of my pants leg while I was walking to work! A local later identified the tarantula as a “matacaballo” or “horse-killer”. Be aware of your surroundings and never put your clothes or boots on without checking them first.

Wild animals are a lot more likely to flee than attack when given the space to do so. For this reason, be especially cautious of animals in captivity and don’t corner an animal without the appropriate training and equipment. Don’t keep trying to get closer for a better picture if the animal seems wary of you. And no matter how tempting, don’t push a mother with cubs to get a better picture. One wildlife photographer was graciously spared by an angry tigress, but another photographer shooting a hippo with her baby was not as lucky.

Respect them – They are smarter, stronger, and faster than you think.

One researcher recalled a time that he was working with a restrained pigtailed macaque in the lab. A technician, rocking the lab-necktie, was entertaining himself by leaning over and pestering the monkey. Suddenly, the monkey grabbed his necktie, pulled his face closer, reached down with its other hand to pick up a pile of poo, and smeared it on the pesty technician’s face. The wise monkey’s advice here: Don’t. Just, don’t.

And on a similar note, even cute, cuddly-looking baby owls (and other species) can bite and scratch the bejeezus out of you. Don’t let your guard down when handling baby wild animals just because they’re adorable.

Remember that animals are not the greatest risk in the field… Not by a longshot.

Photo by Paul Downey at the UK Ministry of Works
on Wikimedia Commons.
Despite the collection of animal hazards listed here, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of injuries in the field are not caused by the animals being studied, but rather by natural hazards, parasites, and people. Usually our own clumsiness and carelessness are our downfall, but sometimes we fall victim to bad drivers (including ourselves), thieves or violent people. As one researcher said, “Active aggression tends to come from conspecifics”. Get your preventative medical care, learn to drive stick (and perhaps take a defensive driving course), bring a first-aid kit and water (and water-purification system and bug net if needed), wear appropriate clothes to protect against insects and weather, know the local currents if you plan to swim, educate yourself about the customs and processes of where you are going, and remain aware and thoughtful when you are in the field.

By Sunday, Andrew’s condition had stabilized and he was moved from critical condition to intensive care. He has now undergone two surgeries and remains sedated. If you would like to leave a message of support for Andrew and his family, his friends have set up a Facebook page. If you would like to donate to Andrew’s medical costs and his family’s travel expenses, you can donate here. And if you would like to learn about and donate to the Thin Green Line, an organization that supports Park Rangers in developing nations and conflict zones, go here.

Thanks to everyone who contributed stories and advice for this piece: Stephen Ambrose, Ian Batterman, Al Beck, Devendra Bhardwaj, Dennis Owusu Boateng, Sam Bryks, Denise Donovan, Carrie Duafala, David Gaines, Jerry Haigh, Caleb Hickman, Pat Hoy, Denis Lane, Lisa Langell, Tom Larimer, Jacqueline Levine, David Manning, Bery Pannkuk, Rob Parkin, Sabyasachi Patra, John Pemberton, Steve Phelps, Kath Potgieter, Brad Rence, David Sinn, John Taylor, Ann Turner, Veronika Valdova, Joep van de Vlasakker, Armonía Vega Quintero, and Menno Witteveen.


  1. Sarah, that's a really adventurous article which looks like you visited a survival school when researching it. Just out of interest, what was the name of the monkey? Are you sue it was a macaque?

    This is my original contribution which is, I must admit, much less dramatic.
    When you go hiking to some abandoned places and spend some time outdoors, it is a good idea to check for any potentially dangerous species in the area such as venomous snakes. Their favorite hiding place is in boots. So people who put their glasses in a boot at night to keep them safe tend to get them without looking first thing in the morning and disturb a snake from its comfortable hiding place. They tend to be faster than a half blind hiker. Don't eat any herps you do not know because many of them are endangered species. And be careful about rabies when skinning and roasting any wildlife. In some places it is not permitted to hunt and eat any wildlife at all. But by far the most dangerous creatures in the wild are hunters who tend to shoot at everything what moves, especially at masked photographers who are hiding in bushes waiting for a nice shot.

    1. Dr Valdova,
      Your biased remarks concerning the threat posed by hunters in the field reflect a dangerous and naive lack of knowledge on proper procedures in the wild. 1) if your quarry has poor color vision you should be wearing the proper safety-orange vest and hat worn by hunters and those aware of their presence. 2) the worst thing you can do is attempt to hide from hunters...this imitates animal behavior. Stand up, wave your arms over your head, and shout "humans here, do not shoot." If asked why you're in a hunting zone simply reply: biologists on field study. 3) when venturing into dangerous (grizzly, lion)country, suggest you hire a professional hunter/guide. None less than Jack Hanna was nearly mauled while guiding a group through bear country. Wolves, coyotes, & cougars WILL attack us; wild boars are nearly pandemic in the US and fear nothing; to think otherwise is immature California style wishful thinking. Those qualified are legally allowed to carry firearms; I once had to shoot a snake & once put a shot "across the bow" of a deer intent on attacking a fellow hiker. The greatest of the explorers, Shackleton, said that if you think your undertaking is an adventure, then you've overlooked something important. Liberalism aside, when in dangerous country you should prepare accordingly.
      Max Gurnemanz PhD

  2. After decades walking mountains all across Western USA as FATHER NATURE CONSULTING, I do have a good tip for your readers. I use TEA TREE shampoo in morning and ticks crawl out of my hair with no bite. People wonder how I never get sick!

    I'm Portland's Oregon Nature Examiner and here is my FACEBOOK site:

    I'm open to any questions; as I'm 61 and lots of stories.

    1. Try Bounce Dryer Sheets as a tick repellent. Tuck one in your shirt collar, one ot two in the waist of your pants or skirt, and one in each sock or boot top.