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Pets and wildlife: don’t get too close for comfort

We live in Colorado for a reason—the outdoors! And, just as much as we enjoy hitting the trails, parks, open spaces and even our neighborhoods, so do our dogs. The smells, sights and places to explore are enough to get your intrepid companion’s tail wagging faster than you can fill your water bottle! But, those same places we love to take our pups are homes to wildlife. Even a stroll around the block can bring a surprise critter encounter, and a little knowledge goes a long way.

We spoke with Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager for Jefferson County Colorado Open space, about some tips to make your outdoor experience the best and safest possible.

What should people think about while planning a day outside regarding wildlife and their dog?

Safety first. All wildlife is unpredictable, and all dogs are unpredictable. If your dog has never seen a moose, how do you know how it will respond to one? The safest way to plan for a day outside in nature is to keep your dog leashed at all times.

With the recent bear attack in Durango, what precautions can you take, such as carrying bear spray or teaching your dog certain commands?

Bear spray is only effective if you know how to use it and have it holstered on your belt so you can easily grab and use it. If it’s buried in your pack, you won’t have time to rummage for it when you and your dog suddenly cross paths with a bear. Buy an inert can for practice.

Consider pre-training your pet for helpful trail commands, which could prove essential in a wildlife encounter. Teach your dog a command that gets them to come to your side and sit immediately. This command improves safety if/when your dog is out at the end of its leash and you spot a coyote, mountain lion, rattlesnake, bear or moose. You don’t want the dog to agitate a wild animal, making it more likely to defend or approach. This command can also help when your dog spots a squirrel, deer or an elk, which they may perceive as something to chase. Wildlife viewing should not involve stressing the wildlife you love to watch with your dog. A leashed dog that can quietly view wildlife sitting or standing next to you is ideal.

What types of wildlife are visitors most likely to encounter on our trails or when they’re outdoors?

Visitors may come across deer, moose, bear, coyotes, snakes, mountain lions, elk, porcupines, foxes, skunks and bighorn sheep. People need to realize they share parks, trails, open spaces and campsites with wildlife and always unpredictably. The most common dog-wildlife encounters reported to us are bears, coyotes and rattlesnakes, and all are potentially dangerous for the dog if it’s not leashed and under control.

What should people do should they come across wildlife?

One common rule for all wildlife is to give wildlife space and an escape route.

If you and your dog encounters a snake in the trail, immediately walk back from the snake, giving it lots of space…30 feet is good. This allows the snake space and time to decide to leave the trail for the safety of cover. If you and your dog stay in close proximity to the snake, it may become agitated and elect to stay put and defend itself rather than slither away.

It’s important to know first aid for a rattlesnake bite. Dogs that a rattlesnake has bitten need immediate emergency care. Try to keep your dog calm. If you can carry your dog out, that will help reduce the spread of venom through the body. Do not attempt to cut the bite area or suck the venom out. Unfortunately, because dogs explore with their nose and face, they are often bitten on the nose, neck and face, which can lead to profound swelling of the face and neck and potential loss of airway. Not all emergency veterinarians stock antivenom. Call ahead to make sure you are transporting your dog to an emergency vet that stocks antivenom and let them know you are on your way.

If you and your dog encounter a bear, coyote or a mountain lion, stop, command the dog next to you, make yourself look big and back away from the animal. If the wildlife continues to approach, shout, raise your hands, stomp your feet, wield a stick or other object defensively. If a coyote grabs your dog, do not attempt to grab the dog back with your hands. Kick or strike the coyote with your foot, knee or a stick.

If you are charged by an elk, moose or a deer, try to put a large boulder or tree between the wild animal and you and your dog. Be aware that an off-leash dog can agitate these animals and deliver the angry ungulate back to the handler, only to have the animal raise up and strike the human with its hooves. This is incredibly dangerous. If the ungulate knocks a human (or a dog) to the ground with its hooves, it may attempt to trample the dog or human.

What do you advise people is the number one thing to know?

Leash your dog. Be safe. Not sorry. Give me two squirrels and a coyote and I will prove your dog is not under voice command. Don’t take the chance. You love your dog, and we have seen countless broken hearts on the trail as the result of a lost, dead or injured dog because of a completely avoidable negative encounter with wildlife. Forget the big stuff, we’ve had dogs give chase to a rabbit never to be found again; lost forever in the forest because the handler did not know or understand the dog would react that way to a wild animal.

Due to safety and wildlife protection concerns, leashes are the law in most parks and open space settings. Unleashed dogs are our number one complaint from our visitors. If wildlife could call, email or post complaints on social media, I am certain off-leash dogs would be wildlife’s top complaint as well.

Mary Ann Bonnell has been a professional park ranger and/or naturalist since 1991. Her first job was as a naturalist on Catalina Island as an instructor for the Catalina Island Marine Institute. When she returned to Colorado, she worked as a naturalist for Jefferson County Open Space. Her first full time, permanent job as a park ranger was at Roxborough State Park. Mary Ann also worked at Barr Lake State Park and gained experience rangering in an urban environment with the City of Aurora. She returned to Jefferson County Open Space in 2014 to supervise the Park Ranger program and was promoted to visitor services manager in 2016. Mary Ann still patrols one day a week and provides about 40 lectures and classes a year on local topics, including coyote ecology, rattlesnake safety, raptor identification, birding by ear, wildlife tracking and trailside botany. (Read more about Mary Ann here).

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