Sometimes fear serves us well. It keeps us from taunting bears, for example. But fear can also be unfounded. As the numbers prove, those animals that scare people the most seldom pose a real threat.
Consider the snake. Of the 137 different snake species in the United States, only 20 are venomous, and the majority of these are rattlesnakes, which thankfully carry warning devices (rattles) to alert potential victims. The risks of a harmful snakebite are further reduced by the fact that half of all the bites administered by venomous snakes are benign -- no venom is released. Thus in the United States, where some 7,000 snakebites are reported annually, a mere 15 or so prove fatal.
Another feared animal is the spider. The best known venomous U.S. species are the widows, which reside in all the lower 48 states. But despite their tendency to live near human habitations, widows are very shy, and it usually takes some effort to get close to them. The other famous "deadly" spider in our area is the Brown Recluse. It's found only in a handful of states, and even there bites are rare. As for tarantulas, our scariest spiders, the truth is that there are no dangerously poisonous tarantulas anywhere in the world.
Like spiders, bats are almost universally feared, so it's probably a good thing that few people know just how many species are out there. Most states have more than 10 species of bats, and roughly 1,000 species exist worldwide. But the only time bats pose a threat to humans is as carriers of rabies. Even then the threat is infinitesimal. A Colorado study showed that of 233 cases of bats biting humans, where 30 percent of the bats were rabid, none of the victims contracted the disease.
The most widespread large predator in the United States, meanwhile, is the Mountain Lion, and as its numbers increase in areas, the fear of attacks rises. But even among researchers who devote huge amounts of time to tracking these animals, many have never seen a live specimen in the wild. During the entire last century there were only 12 recorded fatalities attributed to Mountain Lions in all of Canada and the United States.
And then there are sharks, which are probably responsible for keeping more people out of the water than the smaller organisms that should really be feared. Annually in the United States there are less than a dozen shark attacks, with one or two fatalities. By comparison, some 300 people are struck by lightning every year.
The numbers don't lie. Without a doubt, the most dangerous thing a person can do when embarking on an outdoor adventure is driving to the trailhead in a car.