Does the sight of a spider cause you to run from the room? Do you feel panicked at the very thought of an animal encounter? If so, you might be one of the many Americans -- 6 percent, according to anxiety expert Dr. Martin Antony -- who have an animal phobia. Whether these fears stem from urban legends or real-life encounters, it's normal to be scared of wild animals that could cause you physical harm. But do some animals get a bad rap, thanks to tall-tales or out-and-out myths about them that just won't go away? Keep reading to find out which animals are most likely to give us the heebie-jeebies, which of those are actually worthy of our fear and respect, and what you should do if you encounter your worst animal nightmare.
10. American Alligator
With a scaly body, menacing glare and powerful chops, the American alligator is one of the most feared animals on the planet. According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, these reptiles grow up to 11 feet (3.3 meters) long on average and weigh up to 450 pounds (204 kg), with some males reaching a staggering 1,000 pounds (453 kg). A gator's tail can pack a wallop and is capable of breaking bones with just one swing, but the animal's real strength lies in its jaws. Most alligators have anywhere from 74 to 80 teeth in their mouths, but it's actually the powerful clamp an alligator delivers to its prey that does the most damage. Experts suggest the best hope for getting a gator to loosen its grip is to punch it in the eyes, nose or ears.
Gators are normally indigenous to the Southeastern coastline, with the greatest population living in Florida, but that's all changing thanks to irresponsible pet owners who purchase the animals as babies and then release them once they get too big to care for. Gator sightings are on the rise in urban areas like New York City, and it's entirely possible one could end up in your own backyard, too. You should never accept an alligator as a pet, and since this armor-skinned gourmand will eat just about anything, never feed one, or it may lose its fear of people and return for seconds.
Coyotes have long been considered public enemy no. 1 to livestock and small pets. Cousin to the gray wolf, these medium-sized, jackal-like creatures are agile animals, capable of running at speeds up to 43 miles (69 kilometers) per hour and jumping up to 13 feet (4 meters). According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), coyotes have been living near people for decades due to new communities encroaching on their habitats. Despite the close living quarters, they are mostly private animals that prefer to remain undetected -- unless there is food nearby.
Though coyotes historically have stolen livestock under a cloak of darkness, their urban descendents seem to be more brazen as they assimilate to life with humans. More than 300 coyotes have been collared for tracking purposes in Chicago, and occasional reports of a coyote attack, like the one on singer Jessica Simpson's maltipoo in 2009, remind us that these animals aren't to be trifled with. HSUS says the best way to keep coyotes out of your space is to remove any possible food and water sources. If you live in an area with a known coyote population, keep your small pet on a leash at all times. Don't ever feed coyotes, and if you see one, HSUS recommends causing a loud commotion to scare the coyote away.
8. American Black Bear
The American black bear is the smallest of the bears living in North America, but its big paws can still pack a punch. This beast can weigh anywhere from a svelte 125 pounds (68 kilograms) to a mighty 600 pounds (272 kilograms). Its appearance may give off the impression that it's a slow, lumbering creature that roots around in trash cans all day, but this bear can reach speeds up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour and is very dangerous if surprised or provoked.
According to the HSUS, more suburban developments are encroaching on bear habitats, making it more likely that you could see a black bear roaming about in your neighborhood. They're really more interested in food than people. To reduce the odds of a bear wandering into your yard, keep all garbage and food stored in secure containers. Should you find yourself face to face with a bear while camping or hiking, do not approach it. The American Bear Association recommends staying calm and slowly backing away from the area. Never try to run or scream, as startling the bear could cause his fight instincts to kick in.
Ornithophobia is the medical term for bird phobias, but many people without a bona fide phobia still fear the creatures. Alfred Hitchcock's horror film, "The Birds," even played into people's penchant to duck for cover when a bird is around. And of all the bird species, pigeons seem to get the worst rap of them all. Often called "rats of the sky," pigeons used to be well respected for their homing abilities and were employed during wars to send messages back and forth between troops and base camp. According to HSUS, Hindu and Islamic nations still love these birds, but the tone is different in the United States, where many consider them flying rodents that spread disease and leave bird droppings everywhere they land.
An average pigeon is about 13 inches (32 centimeters) in length and weighs a little less than a pound. This bird is quite adept at living in heavily populated cities and makes its nests in support structures, on building ledges and under bridges. While pigeons and other birds have been known to dive bomb into a person's head on occasion, you should really only be fearful of flying poop. Pigeon droppings do carry fungi that put humans at risk of contracting diseases, such as histoplasmosis. However, the odds of getting a disease from a pigeon are very low, and the few known cases in which that happened involved pigeon pet owners, not random city slickers.
6. Great White Shark
Very few words will cause a crowd to flee for their lives, but "shark!" is definitely at the top of the list. This sharp-toothed beast has a staggering 3,000 teeth and can grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) long with a weight as heavy as 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms), making it the largest predator of the sea. With stats like that, it seems quite logical to be scared of a great white, but according to research conducted at the Florida Museum of Natural History, you're more likely to be struck by lightening than attacked by a shark.
For the most part, you should enjoy your next trip to the beach, but just to be safe, consider these tips from the Discovery Channel: To avoid becoming a shark's next meal, only swim in the ocean during the day. Try not to splash too much and pay attention to your surroundings. If a shark attack recently happened where you're vacationing, don't swim in that water, as sharks are likely to return to the same spot in hopes of another bite. When in doubt, ask a lifeguard if it's safe to go out.
5. North American Bat
This winged mammal has carried a bad reputation for decades thanks to its nocturnal nature and anecdotal ties to Halloween and vampires. However, most bats in the U.S. prefer insects to blood and actually help keep our ecosystem running smoothly. According to HSUS, there are more than 40 different species of bats living in the U.S., and they all eat different insects -- some of which are damaging to agricultural crops. In addition to providing some pest control, they also help pollinate plants, and many consider their feces a natural fertilizer.
HSUS says that, for their contribution to the ecosystem, bats deserve respect instead of fear. They rarely cause issues for people, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most bats aren't rabies carriers, although you should seek medical attention and get tested if one bites you. If a bat should get into your home, HSUS recommends staying calm, closing all of the interior doors and providing the bat with an exit to the outdoors. Once the bat has left the building, look for its entry point and close it so he can't return again.
4. Bed Bugs
If your grandmother used to tuck you in with a kiss and a warning to, "sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite," she probably never imagined you might actually need to heed this advice. Yes, your worst nightmare is coming true as hospitals, movie theaters, hotels and private homes throughout the country are becoming infested with these little nighttime blood-sucking creatures, which are almost impossible to get rid of. These tiny bugs are about a quarter-inch long and look similar to apple seeds with six tiny legs.
The bed bug's reputation is bigger than his bite, which is relatively harmless. If you a have a bed bug bite, the area could itch, but Dr. Dini Miller doesn't recommend scratching it. Instead, treat it as you would a mosquito bite, and apply an anti-itch lotion after you've cleaned the area. The more irritating issue is that it can be incredibly difficult to eradicate these critters from your life. If your home becomes infested, plan to invest a lot of time, money and patience, since just one visit by an exterminator won't get the job done. You'll most likely need to de-clutter your space before pesticides can be sprayed, and worst-case scenarios involve tossing mattresses and other upholstered furniture.
3. Norway Rat
Rats and mice have been around longer than most Americans. Many of these rodents even immigrated when early colonists did, and they are so common in New York City that some believe the rats there outnumber the people. The most common species is the Norway rat, which weighs between 12 and 19 ounces (340 and 538 grams) and grows to be 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) long. Though some urban folklore describes rats to be the size of cats, it's very rare for one to weigh more than a pound. These rodents can be found in just about every area around the world, with the exception of the polar regions, where the low human population makes it impossible for a rat colony to survive, since they thrive on the waste left behind by people.
do carry pathogens, which spread diseases and contaminate food. Additionally, they can cause an incredible amount of damage, tearing into walls, wiring and anything else they can sink their teeth into. If you suspect a rat colony has taken up living quarters in your home, do not try to remedy the situation yourself, since rats are not the same as common house mice. Contact a professional to help eliminate the problem.
The rattlesnake comes equipped with a warning sound that's enough to stop anyone dead in his or her tracks. With the potential to grow up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length, this snake is the largest venomous snake in the U.S. A member of the pit viper family, it comes equipped with two heat-detecting pits under its nostrils, which help the rattlesnake hunt prey -- even in the dark. These snakes also come complete with a forked tongue that acts as a navigational device and a hinge-like mouth that can open 180 degrees, making it easy to swallow victims whole. There are a variety of rattlesnakes, and they come in different patterns and colors, but you'll know one based on its signature tail that rattles when the snake feels threatened.
Although rattlesnakes are venomous, they also play an important role in our ecosystem: providing natural pest control. Never try to kill a rattlesnake. If you see one while hiking, walk around it and let it be. If you find one in your yard, it's best to leave it alone and call animal control, which will remove it from your property. You should never accept a rattlesnake -- or any venomous snake -- as a pet. If bitten by a rattler, seek medical attention immediately.
1. Black Widow Spider
The black widow isn't the same itsy-bitsy spider you sang about as a child, but more like the stuff nightmares are made of. Male black widows, distinguished by their yellow or white markings, are basically harmless. It's the female you should be concerned about. This femme fatale -- with that trademark red hourglass marking on her abdomen and venomous fangs -- will spin a web and lie in wait for her next victim. Once an insect becomes stuck in her trap, the black widow quickly sinks her teeth into it, sending a shot of venom filled with digestive enzymes into its body. These enzymes cause the insect corpse to liquefy, making one juicy snack for the black widow.
While this leggy lady is a killer, she's not normally aggressive toward people unless she feels threatened. According to the MedlinePlus, death resulting from her bite is very rare in a normally healthy person, although it may be a good idea to seek medical attention. Young children and the elderly are more at risk of having serious health complications after a black widow bite. Black widows like private places, so they're most likely to be found hanging around in wood piles, barns or basements. As with all wild animals, exercise common sense and seek professional help should you find yourself living with one of these creepy crawlies.
- American Bear Association. "Black Bear Facts." (Sept. 28, 2010)
- Antony, Martin M. Ph.D., McCabe, Randi E. Ph.D. "Overcoming Animal & Insect Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Dogs, Snakes, Rodents, Bees, Spiders and More." New Harbinger Publications. June 2005.
- Associated Press. "Controlling wily coyotes? Still no easy answers." MSNBC. July 12, 2009. (Sept. 28, 2010)
- Center for Disease Control. "Bats." (Sept. 28, 2010)
- Center for Disease Control. "Venomous Snakes." (Sept. 28, 2010)
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