Fear of the unknown

Mountain lion attacks Austin boy! (Overreact and) keep your children inside!

Mountain lion attacks Austin boy! (Overreact and) keep your children inside!

On Feb. 5, an Austin boy was mauled by a mountain lion in Big Bend National Park. On that same day, thousands of children ended up in emergency rooms across the country thanks to car crashes. Yet that mountain lion attack may have us considering — as we drive the kids to soccer practice on MoPac while talking on our cell phone — a resort vacation in lieu of hiking in Big Bend this summer.

According to David Ropeik, Harvard instructor and author of How Risky is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, we often fear things that pose very little risk, while we ignore things that actually present significant risk.

“Our brain is a survival machine,” Ropeik says, “so it sometimes makes choices about things based on quick judgments about incomplete information. It feels really scary to be eaten alive, and the idea of that sets off instinctive alarm bells that have nothing to do with the probability.” This is why, for example, we fear cancer more than heart disease, which is actually a greater risk.

 The more familiar something is, the less likely we are to see it as risky. We’re very familiar with cars, for example, but not so much with mountain lions.

“Feelings are a major part of how we gauge what to be afraid of. An episode like this warns us to be careful about our assessments of risk, because they are so powerfully emotional, and because of that, sometimes we’re wrong. If people understand that our perception of risk can lead to judgments that feel right but don’t match the facts, they can use that knowledge to be smarter about the choices they make. There are a lot of people who may not be out hiking now, and the risk of harm to their health from not hiking is greater than the risk of a mountain lion attack.”

The more familiar something is, the less likely we are to see it as risky. We’re very familiar with cars, for example, but not so much with mountain lions.

“What is unusual sticks out and sends a message to the part of the brain where fear starts,” Ropeik explains. That message is ‘pay attention to this, because we’re not used to it and haven’t figured it out.’ Our brains respond to the very uniqueness of something like a mountain lion attack. This has contributed to the survival of our species he adds, but this approach to risk doesn’t work as well with modern risks, which are often more complicated and require more thought. “Relying on our feelings for these more complicated risks has more potential for mistakes.”

So, parents watch television news reports about a boy bitten by a wild animal and decide to keep their children indoors, yet don't think twice about driving their children places every day — an activity that puts them at much greater risk. According to the CDC, vehicle collisions send 150 children ages 0 to 19 to emergency rooms every hour.

Consider the danger posed by snakes, for example. In the US, snakes bite some 7,000 people and kill an average of five each year, versus the 360,000 dog bites which take someone to a hospital emergency room. Not to mention that many of those snake-bit 7,000 had it coming, intentionally handling venomous snakes or engaging in otherwise reckless behavior.

The only things scarier than snakes? Sharks. Yet on average, each year in the US, there are only 28 shark attacks. Between 2001 and 2010, according to the University of Florida Ichthyology Department, shark attacks caused only 10 fatalities. Dogs? 263.

 I don’t want to diminish the severity of this little boy’s accident, or the agony of witnessing it for his parents. But it would be a tragedy if that incident caused me to keep my kiddo off of a bike all his life — as it would for parents to fear the outdoors and prevent their children from exploring.

Yet most of us don't live in fear of dogs or avoid places where we might encounter one. But many people fear sharks and snakes and stay away from places where they live — or clamor to have them killed.

I don’t want to diminish the severity of this little boy’s accident, or the agony of witnessing it for his parents. I have three children, and vividly remember the day my son busted his chin falling off of a bicycle. That relatively minor accident left me shaken. But it would be a tragedy if that incident caused me to keep my kiddo off of a bike all his life — as it would for parents to fear the outdoors and prevent their children from exploring.

People, children in particular, reap huge benefits from time spent outdoors. Much research, including studies at The Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, confirm that simply getting outside and spending time in green spaces can reduce stress, help us recover more quickly from illness, increase our self-control and make us more willing to cooperate with and help others. A National Wildlife Federation report showed that time spent outdoors helped children perform better on tests, while other research has correlated playing outdoors with decreased hyperactivity and increased creativity in kids. 

Luckily, few Austinites risk being attacked by a mountain lion. Since Big Bend National Park opened in 1944, there have been only four such attacks. Before this one, the most recent occurred in 1984, and since then, nearly three million people have visited the park, according to public information officer David Elkowitz. Those are pretty visitor-friendly odds.

Mountain lions are generally quite reclusive. Elkowitz says typically very young and very old animals struggle when times get tough though, and record dryness has much of the park’s wildlife struggling. The cat that attacked was described as small and thin — in other words, starving and desperate. This was not normal mountain lion behavior.

Park rangers and a professional dog team have been searching for this animal, which will likely be killed. Until then, trails and campgrounds in the area are closed. In short, the park is doing everything to prevent another attack from this particular cat. Meanwhile, every year, some 36,000 Americans die from normal seasonal flu and 34,000 or so from car crashes.

When it comes to danger, we're clearly barking up the wrong tree — a tree we won't let our kids climb.

ictAustin Photo Set: News_Melissa_Mountain lion Mauling_big bend_feb 2012_mt lion
Austin Photo Set: News_Melissa_Mountain lion Mauling_big bend_feb 2012_victim
6-year-old Rivers Hobbs, sits with his father two days after the attack. Courtesy of ABC News