When a 2-year-old boy was snatched by an alligator in a lagoon at a Walt Disney World resort hotel in Orlando on Tuesday, it was without a doubt horrific — and extremely rare.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission notes that even though the state averages about seven unprovoked alligator attacks per year — a rate that has been increasing about 3 percent a year — the likelihood of being seriously injured in a random attack is roughly one in 2.4 million.
Among both children and adults, how common are animal attacks in general? Are they occurring more frequently than ever before?
According to the numbers, no. The likelihood of a horrific attack is still low.
Dr. Joseph Forrester, a surgeon at Stanford University, co-authored a 2012 review of fatalities nationwide from venomous and nonvenomous animals based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You may have heard that mosquitoes kill the most humans by spreading diseases such as malaria. Forrester and his colleagues, however, looked closely at which creatures fatally attack the most humans.
Now, four years after his research was published, Forrester still thinks many people would find the data on animal attacks to be surprising.
“The most common animal-related fatalities are from large mammals, like cattle or horses, but when you’re looking at attacks from wild animals only, the most common cause of death are due to venomous animals, like wasps or bees,” Forrester said. “I think people have in their mind that the most dangerous animals are cougars, bears or alligators, but a bee is more dangerous if a person is predisposed to a reaction.”
For instance, from 1999 to 2014, 921 people died in the United States from encountering hornets, wasps or bees, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that same time span, nine people died from crocodile or alligator attacks, and 78 people died from attacks by other reptiles.
Meanwhile, 1,163 people died from attacks by other mammals, including 486 fatal dog attacks. About 4.5 million dog bites occur each year.
“I think it underscores that the more dangerous animals are the ones we’re around all the time, like horses or cows or pigs or dogs,” Forrester said.
The animals we fear and love
Are you scared of spiders or snakes? There were 112 deaths from 1999 to 2014 due to contact with venomous spiders and 101 due to contact with venomous snakes and lizards. There were 143 deaths due to being bitten or stung by nonvenomous insects or arthropods.
How about sharks? There were about 19 deaths due to contact with marine animals. One person died after encountering a venomous marine animal, such as jellyfish or some types of fish.
The CDC data don’t annotate where an attack took place, such as on a farm. However, a database developed by the animal advocacy group Born Free tracks exotic animal attacks that have occurred in the confinement of circuses, zoos or people’s homes.
According to the database, there have been 68 deaths and 273 injuries from animal attacks at accredited and non-accredited zoos and circuses since 1990. It also shows that attacks by exotic pets have resulted in 45 deaths and 336 injuries.
How to avoid an injury
To discover who is most likely to be attacked by an animal, the CDC data can be divided into region and age groups.
The South accounts for 47 percent of all animal attack-related deaths in the United States, said Dr. Christopher Holstege, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine who conducted the animal attacks review alongside Forrester.
Nationwide, “infants and young children, zero to 4 years of age, were highly represented in dog-related fatalities,” he said. “Dogs caused 66 percent of animal-related deaths in this age group.”
Among children in general, the rate of dog bite-related injuries is highest for 5- to 9-year-olds, according to the CDC. To avoid such attacks, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advises to never leave small children with a dog unsupervised and avoid disturbing a dog when it’s sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
“Due to the known increased incidence of dog-related deaths associated with young children, especially those less than 4 years of age, parents need to carefully monitor dog-child interactions at all times and consider avoiding altogether in the youngest age groups,” Holstege said.
Among adults 20 and older, he added, hornets, wasps and bees account for 33 percent of deaths.
“Those with known significant allergies to wasps, hornets, bees should always carry epinephrine auto-injectors to assure timely treatment when such an envenomation,” he said.
To minimize the risk of getting stung, the Mayo Clinic suggests not swatting at the winged creatures, as it may cause them to attack. If you are stung, the organization advises that you leave the area immediately, as when a honeybee stings, it may release an “alarm pheromone” that could attract other bees.
“In many ways, the data is pretty reassuring. The most common cause of death are not the scariest things, necessarily, but they are the most common interactions we have with farm animals and they are preventable,” Forrester said. “If we implement safe workplace practices for persons working around livestock or if a person knows what to do if you get stung by a bee or a wasp, we can prevent deaths.”