JAWS OF DEATH: How to Write Your Hero’s Encounter With a Wild Animal

I live in Australia, the country at the top of the list for the world’s most dangerous, most poisonous animals. Other than a brief encounter with a red-back spider (Reg) who took residence under my bicycle seat, I have thus far remained unscathed and live to write this blog post.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Darwin at Australia’s top end. For those of you who don’t know, Darwin (plus areas of Northern Queensland) is home to the most fearsome reptile on earth since the dinosaurs: the Saltwater Crocodile. I visited a crocodile theme park and met Burt, the 88-year-old, 17-foot, 1,500-pound star of Crocodile Dundee. According to the sign on Burt’s enclosure, he is a ‘confirmed bachelor with one hell of a grumpy attitude’.Photo-Crocodile-2000-1

This makes Burt sound like a loveable rogue but it’s worth remembering that Burt is a finely-tuned killing machine. Before he was caught thirty years ago, Burt was a cattle killer who lurked in billabongs waiting to drag the unsuspecting beasts into the water.

As an animal-lover, I know I’m guilty of seeing dangerous animals through ‘warm-fuzzy glasses’; I can’t see past the cuddly fur, the big brown eyes and the moist black nose. But what about real life? Earlier this month, a woman was snatched by a five metre saltwater crocodile while wading in waist-deep water on a popular beach in Northern Queensland. In the United States, a 35-year-old man on a mountain bike ride in California was later found dead and partly eaten by a cougar. A ‘cute and cuddly kangaroo’ ambushed and flattened two women riding their bicycles in a popular wine region in South Australia. Both survived although one woman’s breast implants were ruptured in the attack. And who can forget that amazing scene in The Revenant when Leonardo di Caprio is attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead?

So, when your protagonist is pitted against the natural elements, how should he/she react when confronted with a wild animal?

Unless you’re writing a comedy or your protagonist is a hapless goofball like Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island, any hero worth his or her salt needs first and foremost to use their common sense: keeping their distance, storing food in animal proof containers and not making camp near crocodile-infested lagoons or known grizzly bear haunts. Elementary, right?

But hey, while this is great advice for real life, what sort of thriller are you writing if your hero fails to pit his or her wits against a feathered, furred or scaled foe? A boring one, right? So, what if our hero takes all the right precautions (as any intelligent, believable hero would) yet still has to face an angry wild animal? Outdoor Life survival expert Rich Johnson gives some great advice on how you can help your protagonist avoid becoming lunch to a hungry man-eater.

If your hero encounters a bear, he or she should stop, remain calm and back away slowly while speaking in a calm voice showing the bear submission and yielding to its territorial supremacy. Your hero could also:

  • Bang pots and pans together or make other loud noises
  • Leave an escape route open so the bear won’t feel cornered and forced to fight its way out of the situation
  • Not turn his or her back on the bear or running as that will stimulate an attack
  • Avoid direct eye contact, because that is considered an act of aggression
  • Lie face down on the ground, covering his or her head and playing as dead as possible. Your hero might be bitten or clawed, but the bear might leave him or her alone

If your hero encounters a big cat, he or she should try to appear larger than the animal. Like the bear, your hero should never run away, never take his or her eyes off the animal or turn his or her back as that will encourage an attack.

If, despite taking all the above precautions, your hero is attacked, Rich Johnson suggests that he or she stay on their feet and using any available weapon (knife, stick, rock, fingernails, fists, feet) focus the counterattack on the animal’s eyes and nose with as much violence as they can muster.

Regarding crocodile attacks, after latching onto their prey, crocodiles perform what’s known as the ‘death roll’; they spin their victim round and round before drowning them. Feminist writer, Val Plumwood was pulled from her canoe in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Here’s how she described the crocodile’s death roll:

“It is, essentially, an ­experience beyond words and terror…The crocodile’s breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an ­intense burst of power … a centrifuge of boiling blackness that ­lasted for an eternity, beyond ­endurance, but when I seemed all but finished the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched the bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive.”

When the croc seized her again, she tried to jab her thumbs into its eye sockets. When she felt its jaws relax, she broke free and dragged herself away. Her left thigh was ripped open, the tendons exposed. She made a tourniquet from her torn clothes and was eventually rescued by a park ranger.

In another crocodile attack in Africa, a young man fell from his canoe into a crocodile-infested river. He too was subjected to the death roll. He survived by wrapping his legs around the beast while attempting to gouge out the croc’s eyes. When this didn’t work, he thrust a free arm down the crocodile’s throat and flipped open the creature’s epiglottis, a sort-of one way valve at the back of the animal’s throat. This caused water to rush into the croc’s lungs, forcing it to let the man go or risk drowning.

When writing about an animal attack, don’t forget to include the roller-coaster of emotions racing through your hero’s head. Perhaps they are thinking of their husband or wife or son or daughter or lover or brother or sister? What if, while he or she is being attacked, they know their son or daughter lies sleeping in a tent near by? What if your hero has a sick mother or father who will be left with nobody to care for them if your hero doesn’t survive? How would you feel? Who would be at the forefront of your mind? Make your character a real, living breathing person with human feelings, not just a physical automaton who fights the animal and wins. Give him or her high emotional stakes as well.

Val Plumwood described the collapse of her ‘desperate delusion’ about life as a result of her crocodile attack:

“I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being. I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction.”

How about you? What’s the best wild animal survival story you have read or seen? Have you ever considered putting your protagonist in a similar situation? I’d love to hear your stories…

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