Blaming Animals for Our Bad Behavior

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 8, 2011 12

A grizzly in Yellowstone National Park was labeled “rampaging.” It turned out that a photographer had been baiting it with food.

There are many Native American stories regarding the stunning red, orange and white hoodoos in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. The Paiute Indians call the park Unka-timpe-wa-wince-pockich—which means “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon.” According to one of their myths, a group of people once moved into the area and made Coyote angry at their bad behavior. Coyote put a curse on the people, turning them to stone. The canyon’s hoodoos are these Legend People.

Given recent news headlines, however, it seems that the bad people in our national parks are not just relics of tales from the ancient past. And the worst part of it may be that instead of people paying the price for their bad behavior, wildlife is taking the rap.

Yellowstone buffalo often take the blame for what happens when people get too close. ©John T. Andrews

Breaking bad

In July 2010, newspaper articles and TV broadcasts were overrun with stories about a 49-year-old woman and a companion who were “attacked” by a buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The woman spotted the buffalo in a parking lot and began to walk toward it. The animal responded by charging her. She managed to record the event on her cell phone camera, and that footage accompanied her as she made the rounds of morning TV talk shows, her bruises prominently displayed in high def.

After the video was posted on YouTube, however, viewers started taking a second look. According to several people who wrote in, it appeared that a stick had been thrown at the buffalo before it attacked. Some say there was already something on the buffalo’s head that it was trying to shake off. The footage also shows a man purposely striding toward the buffalo. It’s clear that the animal was being stressed by what could be construed as aggressive human actions toward it, and a natural reaction followed.

Yellowstone National Park regulations, which are handed out upon entering the park, explicitly state that visitors must stay more than 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from other wildlife. It’s written that “It is illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within ANY distance that disturbs or displaces the animal.” In her interviews, the woman admitted that she had approached the buffalo to within 10 yards.

A month later, in August, a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park’s Soda Butte Campground killed a Michigan man. Just a week after the “rampaging” grizzly mauled the man to death and injured two other campers near the park, officials were called to investigate allegations that a photographer had been baiting wildlife with food just two weeks earlier. The baiting would explain why the bear kept coming back to the campground, seven miles outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, even after the killing.

Unfortunately, I’m now beginning to see this tendency to blame animals for our bad behavior diffuse out beyond national park boundaries—even into the skies overhead. As recently as last October, a crocodile was blamed for an airplane crash in the Congo. A passenger had hidden it in a duffel bag he’d carried on board, with the intent of selling the reptile upon arrival. The crocodile escaped as the plane was landing. The lone survivor of the crash said the passengers hurried toward the cockpit in a panic, making the plane unstable and thus uncontrollable by the pilot. An investigation into the tragedy revealed that the plane did suffer a balance problem, but not because of the crocodile.

Unfortunately, Coyote no longer seems able to control the bad behavior in our national parks. ©John T. Andrews

Blaming wildlife

The female grizzly that killed the Michigan man was euthanized, and her three cubs were moved to a zoo in Billings, Montana. There is no word about what happened to the offending buffalo—probably only because after the incident, it was impossible to distinguish it from the other buffalo in the park.

In the last 100 years, grizzlies have killed nine people in Glacier National Park and six in Yellowstone, and those parks average one grizzly attack that creates injuries per year. With approximately 1,300 grizzlies living in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, however, the human mortality numbers are lower than might be expected. It’s clear that most animals don’t go out of their way to harass us.

Tom Smith, a bear biologist and an assistant professor at Brigham Young University who once worked at Katmai National Park, recently reported that tourists there would often tell him a grizzly had charged them. But after reviewing video footage they provided as evidence, he said he never saw a grizzly charging—just bears walking about and minding their own business. “The point is,” he told Mead Gruver, an Associated Press writer, “people can’t read these animals at all.”

It could be that despite what recent news stories would have you believe about too many “rampaging” animals in our national parks and elsewhere that the real story is that humans are increasingly displaying bad behavior and are stressing wildlife. Unfortunately, it is the animals that often pay the ultimate price for our mistakes.

Do you think the way people behave when they are near wildlife is getting more disrespectful? Or are we just hearing more about it in the news?

As for the airplane crocodile, it survived the crash but was later killed with a machete by rescue workers sifting through the wreckage.

Unfortunately for us, it seems Coyote no longer turns people into stone.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Leia June 8, 2018 at 11:25 am - Reply

    I do agree that animals get blamed way too much and that we should stop blaming them and do the right thing and commit to what we done

  2. Shines November 21, 2011 at 10:06 am - Reply

    We must take care of the animals they was also a part of our life

  3. Harpreet Sndhu May 24, 2011 at 4:14 am - Reply

    We should get active when even any guest came to our house.And we entered when animals Territory they behave the same, then whats wrong in it?

  4. Art Hardy March 18, 2011 at 7:34 am - Reply

    People have such short memories. They need more than a single reminder that the wilderness and national parks are not petting zoos with trained critters. When we travel into their spaces, we live by their rules and when we break the rules through ignorance and stupidity we should suffer the consequences.

    As always, Darwin was right!

  5. John Howard Gaukel March 10, 2011 at 7:37 am - Reply

    I think most people do obey and follow the posted or writen rules of behavior when they are in a park or wildlife area. However, I also think there is a growing number of people that think either the rules don’t pertain to them, or they think they know what they are doing around wildlife. Then when something goes wrong the wildlife takes the blame and pays the price, most of the time it’s with their life. If you think there isn’t a growing number of people that don’t obey posted signs, just drive down any road going the speed limit and see what happens. You could end up losing your life because of some other drivers bad behavior.

  6. Carlyn Kline March 9, 2011 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    When a frightening percentage of the humans on this planet do not respect the rights or innate worthiness of anything, animate or inanimate, that coexist with them, bad thngs happen, not only to them but to all the rest of us.

  7. constance lyon March 9, 2011 at 11:32 am - Reply

    when an animal is in its natural habitat it is exactly where it belongs. they do what comes natural to them. when humans wander in there they are doing so at their own risk.they are knowingly going where they know theres possible danger if an animal happens to be protecting babies or is hungry. why take too many unnecessary risks?. at least have enough good sense to keep your distance. and look at all the people that jump outa perfectly good boats into the ocean with the sharks!. oh thats real smartt. even when frolicking in the water not too far from shore at the beach there have been helicopters that show with air camera shots that at any given time people and their kids are generally just a matter of yards from a group of sharks. is it technically called a school of sharks not so sure about that. but thats the way it is the oceans the sharks natural habitat. enter at your own risk. and dont wander too far out thereeeeeeeee!.

  8. NineQuietLessons March 9, 2011 at 10:54 am - Reply

    It’s hard to say without seeing some statistical data, but it may be true that as people have less contact or experience with wild animals, they tend to expect all animals to behave like domesticated dogs and cats.

  9. Sandy Gunderson March 9, 2011 at 10:40 am - Reply

    I have always felt that the animals were there first. We are infringing on THEIR homeland and territory. Whether we are hiking or camping or just sight seeing we need to respect thier rights also.

  10. Jack March 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm - Reply

    If you consider wearing shorts bad behavior that buffalo was completely justified.

    • Dave March 9, 2011 at 8:07 am - Reply

      While in Yellowstone last June I saw a family Just walk right up to a bull elk that was just laying 20 feet off the road. when they walked back one of them said Man!! thats a big moose isn’t it.

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