Following I discuss dangerous animals I have known with apologies to Ernest Thompson Seton, author of Wild Animals I Have Known, a book I highly recommend for reading by young people who aspire to become naturalists. I have long been interested in the animals I discuss and the dangers they pose to humans.
Each year between 7,000 and 8,000 people in the country are bitten by venomous snakes, the largest number of bites occurring in North Carolina. A significant number of the bites are attributable to careless handling of the snakes, often by people who have consumed alcohol. Fatalities from snakebite average about seven or eight per year. Remarkably, the most recent fatality recorded in Alabama occurred in Lee County, along Saugahatchee Creek north of Loachapoka, in June 2004. The Macon County man who was bitten by a copperhead was transported to EAMC where he received antivenom. Fatalities resulting from copperhead bites are exceedingly rare. The AP release stated that the man died from complications a few days after he was admitted to the hospital. I assume he was hyper-allergic to snake venom. The American Association of Poison Control Centers report that since it began keeping records in 1983, there were no fatalities in the U.S. from copperhead bites. The Lee County incident was obviously overlooked.
If my memory serves me correctly, a person died from a rattlesnake bite somewhere in South Alabama in 1976, but I have been unable to find documentation of the incident.
Apparently, there have been no deaths from coral snakes bites in Alabama, but in 2006 a Florida man died from the bite of a coral snake he was attempting to kill. This was the first record of a fatality resulting from the bite of a coral snake in the country since 1967.
An interesting statistic compares the hazard posed by venomous snakes with that of lightning strikes. The average person in the U.S. is nine times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a venomous snake. Lightning kills about 54 people each year. Compare the incidence of snakebite fatalities with those of some other dangerous animals that kill. About seven people die each year from spider bites. Dogs kill an average of 27 people annually. Fifty three die from stings of bees, wasps, and hornets. Cattle are responsible for about 20 deaths, about the same number attributable to horses. Most people killed by cattle are men averaging 65 years old. An Alabama State Veterinarian once wrote, “Sixty-five year old men shouldn’t be fooling around with cattle.”
Imported fire ants are more dangerous than most people believe. Anaphylaxis, an extreme allergic reaction, has resulted in death of 32 people stung by fire ants, including four in Alabama.
Deer are not considered by most to be dangerous animals, and except for ‘pet’ bucks which attack their owners, they are not. Also exceptional are the ones struck by automobiles. Auto collisions with deer kill more people than are killed by all the aforementioned animals combined. About 140 people die each year in auto-deer collisions. But even people suffering from the psychological disorder, ophidiophobia (an irrational fear of snakes) who assert “the only good snake is a dead snake,” are reluctant to admit that deer are more dangerous than snakes. To my knowledge, psychologists have not included “odocoilophobia” (fear of white-tailed deer) in their list of phobias. Perhaps they should. Having had two of my vehicles damaged by collisions with deer, I’m beginning to suffer from the disorder.
But far more dangerous than all the animals mentioned above, put together, are Homo sapiens, humans, which in the U.S. deliberately kill an average of 16,790 individuals of their own species each year. No other animal inhabiting the earth remotely compares with Homo sapiens as a predator of members of its own kind.
One other animal whose habits may pose a danger to humans is the Lammergeier, or bearded vulture. It’s an inhabitant of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It picks up bones and, reportedly, turtles, flies upwards, drops them on rocks to crush them, and descends to feed on the insides. An unsubstantiated rumor is that in 458 BC the Greek playwright Aeschylus was told by an oracle that he would die as a result of a house falling on his head. According to the story, Aeschylus believed the oracle, and spent most of his time outside. A Lammergeier picked up a turtle, mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock, and dropped the turtle on it. Aeschylus died when the turtle’s “house” struck his head, thus giving credence to the oracle’s prediction. This should serve as a warning to bald-headed men who are outside in Lammergreier territory. Be sure to keep your head covered!
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.