Feigning death when a predator approaches acts as a common defense tactic in the animal kingdom. Some creatures additionally have the ability to release foul-smelling liquids that resemble a rotting carcass (sounds like a Cannibal Corpse song), which might cause the hunter to presume the animal would be dangerous to consume. Playing dead has varying degrees of success among snakes, possums, and even fleas, but does it work for us homo sapiens?
Skeptical Inquirer considered this question and found it was a sound strategy against just one in seven animals.
The technique is most commonly associated with bears. Even the strongest man is no match for the smallest adult bear, all of whom can outrun Usain Bolt. Therefore, coming upon a bruin is one of the most terrifying situations imaginable.
The response most likely to yield life-preserving results depends on the type of bear. With the black variety, the initial strategy should be one of intimidation, as these bears prefer to stay away from us, a favor we return. If in their territory, use a booming voice, bang wood together, ring bells, just generally make noise. If spotted by a black bear, you’ll want to make yourself as big as possible, make as much noise as you can, and slowly back away. Never run, do not seek out shelter in a tree, and do not play dead.
Grizzlies, that’s another story. Playing dead here is a sound strategy, though it’s not the first one. Backing off is the way to go. This should be done slowly, no sudden moves or running. And no matter how big a person is or makes themselves look, they will still be dwarfed by a grizzly, so trying to make one’s self seem large could serve no purpose other than making the bear think you are threatening it. If the grizzly charges, this is where the cliché of curling up and covering one’s head applies. If encountering a polar bear, first, you have likely ended up in Svalbard. Second, lie low, then curl into the tightest ball possible, so as to kiss your ass goodbye.
Now we move to the Feline and Canine families and consider cougars, coyotes, and wolves.
For any of these mammalian predators, the sound strategy is to play the antithesis of dead, being loud and animated. Making a gunshot sound is recommended, especially against cougars. With wolves, maintaining eye contact is advised, contrary to the usual response to encountering most predators. Fighting any of these should only take place if attacked.
Now onto the slithery portion. Snakes are not the fastest representative of the animal kingdom, so running away is usually a good idea – but only if one has not been bitten. If struck by a venomous snake, the poison will make its way faster through a moving body. To try to avoid the situation in the first place, be loud if in a suspected snake habitat.
Meanwhile, run way from crocodiles alligators, and caimans. Scaling a tree will also work. These critters’ nostrils and eyes are their only areas not protected by scales so go for those if unfortunately close enough to do so.
Sharks have a fearsome reputation, mostly undeserved. The great majority are of relatively small size and pose no threat to people. And the ones who are a threat prefer fatty animals like seals and walruses. There is some speculation that sharks sometimes mistake surfboarders paddling out to sea for a seal, take a hunk out of them, don’t like the taste, and move on. Shark attacks are uncommon and fatal ones quite rare. That being said, if you are in such a dire situation as shark approaching or observing you, make yourself as small as possible but keep your eyes on the animal. Move away slowly and calmly (easier said than done in this predicament). Go for the nose and gills if attacked.
Moose can usually be run off by a good show of waving arms and loud yells, but if that fails, the play dead stereotype is the best bet. If it’s not too late, backing away slowly.
When I encountered a herd of yaks in Mongolia, I marveled at them but owing to their massive size, I kept my distance. By contrast, any number of YouTube idiots have ambled up to large and/or dangerous beasts with predictable results. So follow my strategy of maintaining separation, in addition to employing common sense and prevention. The latter includes keeping food stored, hiking and camping with companions, and becoming familiar with what animals are native and what techniques should be employed if you meet up with one. Or to be safer still, stay home and watch Hulu.