‘I saw a big set of white teeth coming towards me’: the people who survived terrifying wild animal attacks

‘I saw a big set of white teeth coming towards me’: the people who survived terrifying wild animal attacks



Although, mercifully, still rare, there are signs that wild animal attacks on humans are increasing. Research from the scientific journal Nature found that, as our urban areas further expand into the territories of carnivorous animals, attacks on pets, livestock and sometimes humans have been on the rise. In Kashmir, local wildlife departments have been reporting a marked increase in attacks, with almost 200 people killed and more than 2,000 others wounded in man-animal conflict in the region since 2011.

From a British citizen attacked by otters in Singapore, to monkey attacks in Thailand, squirrel attacks in New York, and a man who fought off a crocodile with a pocket knife in Queensland, these encounters capture our imaginations. But how does it feel to survive such an ordeal – and how does it affect your life?

A mountain lion: ‘People have no clue how powerful these animals are.’ Photograph: Max Allen/Alamy
A mountain lion: ‘People have no clue how powerful these animals are.’ Photograph: Max Allen/Alamy

‘I tried to punch the mountain lion in the face’ – Anne Hjelle, 48, Orange County, California

One day in January 2004, I texted my biking friend Debi to see if she wanted to meet for a ride. I live in California and wanted to do a 45-minute loop at Whiting Ranch, which was only a 10-minute drive from my house. I left my groceries on the counter at home.

It was about 3.45pm when we started. I was coming around a blind corner and saw a man in the middle of the trail with another bike propped up against the bushes. I slowed down and asked if everything was OK. He said he had found an abandoned bike and was looking for the owner.

Debi and I continued, trying to pick up speed. A minute later, I came to a twisty section, bordered by thick brush and a slope down to a ravine. In my peripheral vision I suddenly saw this flash of reddish-brown fur. I knew it was an animal, but my first assumption was that it was a deer, since they would sometimes bound across the trail. In the next second, the animal leapt and grabbed me.

There’s only one animal that would attempt that; I knew it was a mountain lion. It latched on to my shoulders and tried to bite down on the back of my neck. It felt like getting hit by a truck. I was slammed to the ground and it knocked the wind out of me; I could not believe this was happening.

The cat started to drag me down into the ravine. It had me by the back of the neck and I tried to punch its face but it didn’t have any effect. It dragged me several feet and then readjusted its grip to over my left ear and then the left side of my face. I realised that it was working its way around to the front of my neck. At this point, I was trying to scream for Debi and I saw her – she was screaming, too, and in a tug of war with the cat over me. It had me by the head and she grabbed me by my calf to try to keep it from pulling me down into the ravine.

Meanwhile, it closed its grip on the left side of my face and pulled my cheek away. It was like a hot knife through butter. I started to say goodbye to Debi as it tried to grab the front of my throat. Within a matter of seconds, things began to go black. I was convinced this was the end of my life. I just felt peace.

But Debi’s screams had brought other riders over to us. One went back to call the emergency services and two others started throwing rocks at the cat. They hit it three times – and when one landed on its head, it let go of me.

Shortly after that, I came to. I remember being very shocked that I had woken up – and that the cat was gone. I was choking on my own blood and it felt as if I was drowning. The left side of my face felt like someone had stapled a steak to it. My next concern was whether I could see out of my left eye. When I realised I could, that was the first moment I thought I was going to be OK.

It took 19 minutes from the 911 call until the paramedics arrived. When the helicopter was flying overhead, the pilot saw the cat crouched down, waiting for another chance. The sheriff’s deputies later found a body that was identified as Mark Reynolds. He was killed earlier by the cat – the abandoned bike was his.

Anne Hjelle having facial therapy to reduce scar tissue and swelling in 2005. Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy
Anne Hjelle having facial therapy to reduce scar tissue and swelling in 2005. Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy

Without Debi stepping in, I would not be here. Mark was a high-level athlete and he did not survive because he was by himself. People have no clue how powerful these animals are – it was like being mobbed by 10 people.

That night, I went into surgery for six-and-a-half hours. My trauma surgeon later said that my injuries were the worst he had ever seen. But I was lucky – out of the 20 deep puncture wounds I sustained, none hit my trachea, oesophagus, voice box or carotid artery. My doctors said it was a miracle.

I got back on a bike only four months later. I got friends together and went to ride that same trail. Either I let the fear control me or I take control; I wanted to check it off the list and move on. I’ve had zero issues with nightmares or PTSD since the attack. I am just so thankful to be alive.

I don’t let this attack define me. I now have a daughter, who is eight, and I try to be strong and set an example for her.

A great white shark: ‘I started to realise that maybe the sharks weren’t going to attack us every time we went in the water. Photograph: Brad Leue/Alamy
A great white shark: ‘I started to realise that maybe the sharks weren’t going to attack us every time we went in the water. Photograph: Brad Leue/Alamy

‘I grabbed the shark in a bear hug to stop it biting me’ – Rodney Fox, 81, Adelaide

At 22, I was the winner of the South Australian spearfishing championships, holding your breath and spearing a variety of fish under a time limit. I was trying to regain my title in 1963, off Aldinga beach. After three or four hours, I needed to catch some special species, so I swam a long way offshore, where none of the other competitors had been, and dived to the bottom. I was just about to pull the trigger on a really prized fish when a huge crash hit me in the side. It knocked the gun out of my hands and the mask off my face and I was dragged through the water faster than I’d ever swam before.

Rodney Fox showing the scars from his shark attack. Photograph: Jeff Rotman/Alamy
Rodney Fox showing the scars from his shark attack. Photograph: Jeff Rotman/Alamy

I initially thought I’d been hit by a submarine, but then I realised it had to be a giant shark – a great white. Fortunately, I had been talking to a guy who had been bitten on the leg a year earlier, and we had worked out that the most vulnerable spot on the shark was its eyes. So I gouged around its head trying to get the shark to let go of me. And it did.

I fell out of its mouth and I instinctively thrusted away with my hand, but that went into its mouth and tore on its teeth. I then grabbed the shark in a bear hug around the belly because I knew it wouldn’t be able to bite me there.

I was 30 or 40ft underwater and I realised I was going to drown if I didn’t move. So I let go and kicked up to the surface, then I looked down through the blood red water and saw this big set of white teeth coming back towards me. I kicked as hard as I could at the shark but I only just touched it. Instead, it turned and swallowed the float that I had tied my fish to. That float was connected to my lead belt by a rope and that caught on the shark’s teeth. It dragged me underwater again.

I knew I had to find the quick release for the belt, but my hands were all cut up. I was within split seconds of drowning when the shark pulled, the line snapped and I managed to thrash to the surface. Miraculously, a boat was on its way over to have a look at all this red water and the people on board pulled me in.

The fear of dying overrides pain. It was only when I was lying down on the boat that the waves of pain arrived. I knew I had done my best – now it was up to my rescuers to try to save me.

In those days, there was no microsurgery, so they put 29 stitches in my lung to close up the pleural sac, and every rib on my left side was broken. I had 462 stitches in my chest in total, since all of my organs were exposed and my torso was ripped open. Doctors said it was the worst shark attack they had seen.

Just seven months after the attack, I was at Adelaide zoo looking at a lion’s cage. I had this idea that I could build a cage underwater and reverse the roles. I would look at these sharks and try to understand them, and then see if I wanted to go back to diving. In 1964, I managed to organise an expedition with two other shark-attack survivors. The sharks were more interested in the bait than us, and I started to realise that maybe the sharks weren’t going to attack us every time we went in the water.

A lot of people would say the best sharks are dead sharks, but I knew there was already lots of blood in the water from the speared fish, so I don’t blame the shark for coming and biting something. Over the years, it’s been a huge battle trying to get people to understand sharks better. We have to learn not to kill them from fear.

A year and a half after the attack, I entered the Australian spearfishing championships and came first in several events. I’m 81 now and it hasn’t given me any real problems, except that I have a tight feeling in the left side of my chest to remind me how lucky I was. I’ve been running expeditions for people to watch sharks in their habitats ever since.

‘I had never thought they would attack anyone’ … a river otter. Photograph: Jouko van der Kruijssen/Getty Images
‘I had never thought they would attack anyone’ … a river otter. Photograph: Jouko van der Kruijssen/Getty Images

‘The otter kept torpedoing underwater to bite my legs ’ – Leah Hiller, 42, Minnesota

My dad owns a cabin in a remote area on Island Lake, Minnesota, where we would often spend holidays. In July 2012, when I was 31, I was staying there while training for the USA Triathlon National Championships. My husband and two children, who were four and two at the time, were with me. One morning, I went for my usual mile-long swim. I’d done it 100 times before and my dad was going to take my kids out to follow me on his pontoon boat.

Everything was going great until my kids said they wanted to be taken back to eat some snacks. I told my dad it was fine for him to go, since there was no boat traffic.

In Island Lake, the water is the colour of dark rum, so when your hand passes into it, you can’t see past your elbow. You don’t know what is beneath. I circled the island in the lake and was on my way back to shore when I was bitten on the heel. It was a really sharp pain. At first, I thought it was a muskie, which are these huge fish that populate the lake, but they’re not known to be violent. Then I was attacked on the calf. Something grabbed my leg and just started biting.

I was in real pain and my mind was in shock. About 20ft away, a head popped out to look at me and I realised it was an otter.

Leah Hiller. Photograph: Courtesy of Leah Hiller
Leah Hiller. Photograph: Courtesy of Leah Hiller

I’m an animal lover and had never thought otters would attack anyone. Over the next 10 minutes, I was yelling and calling for help. The otter kept torpedoing underwater to bite my legs and then it would come up, track where I was, and attack again. I knew I couldn’t outswim it, so I just had to brace for the bites and try to protect my neck because, if it hit me there, I would have drowned.

These sharp, searing bites were coming from every angle and it bit me 25 times. Some of them were two inches deep and one pierced my ankle bone, while another went through my calf muscle.

But I am no stranger to adversity. When I was 18 I survived a car crash where I was sent flying through the windscreen. I spent six months in the hospital and had to have multiple surgeries. When I was 23, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to have my lymph nodes removed. I believe these experiences helped me – I knew I had to fight.

I kept on screaming and eventually my dad heard me. He was so panicked he flooded the motor of the pontoon boat trying to start it. He had to get to his other boat, which luckily did start, and he made it to me and pulled me out of the water.

He couldn’t leave my kids alone, so they were in the boat, too, and my daughter was bawling at seeing her mum covered in blood. Even though I was in pain, I switched into mum mode and was comforting her. I knew, now I was out of the water, I would be fine.

It must have been 10 to 15 minutes before my dad got out to me, and without him it could have gone on for a lot longer because there were no other boats nearby. My wetsuit was a saviour – that quarter inch of neoprene took a lot of the scratches and it was shredded. The blood was streaming under it. We went straight to the hospital where the doctors were worried that the otter might have rabies. Since I had 25 open wounds, I had to get a rabies shot in each of them – it was so much medication that I threw up everywhere.

The first thing I asked when I stopped vomiting was, “When can I get back in the lake?” The doctors thought it was crazy, but I knew that if I could not get back in the water and face my fear, I would never want to again. I was given a two-week course of antibiotics and after that I was told I would be good to go. There was a triathlon happening about two weeks later and I knew that would be my way to get back in. I did it in a wetsuit that said “otter girl” on the back.

I still swim now. I’m proud of that otter attack story because it showed me how mentally strong I can be. That otter still lives, too. No one knows why it attacked me, but the doctors guessed that it must have been a mother otter protecting its babies. My dad would see it swimming around for years afterwards – I just don’t think anyone else swam in that spot again.

Colin Dowler at the logging camp at Mount Doogie Dowler. Photograph: Courtesy of Colin Dowler
Colin Dowler at the logging camp at Mount Doogie Dowler. Photograph: Courtesy of Colin Dowler

‘The grizzly bear carried me 30ft in its mouth’ – Colin Dowler, 47, Vancouver Island

In summer 2019, I was exploring potential hiking routes to climb Mount Doogie Dowler in British Columbia. I was cycling down a narrow logging path when I came around a corner and spotted a grizzly bear. I had seen two or three black bears before and, usually, if you make some noise, they move away. But this was the first time I had seen a grizzly – and it was staring at me.

I got off my bike, since it wasn’t moving. I was peering out of the corner of my eye and noticed it slinking towards me, until it was only a couple of feet away. It had almost cleared past my bike – until it made a 180-degree turn towards me. I spun around to put the bike between us and got my hiking pole out as it moved closer, placing it between its eyes. It pushed back a little and that seemed like a decent stalemate until it rolled its head, bit on to the pole and tossed it away. I took off my bag and threw it to the side – I thought it would go for the food in there instead of me. It took a sniff but then started prodding me with its paw. Each poke got a little more aggressive until it lifted its paw high. I thought it would inflict some serious damage so I threw my bike at it.

‘I thought it would inflict some serious damage so I threw my bike at it’ … a grizzly bear. Photograph: Reuben Krabbe/Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images
‘I thought it would inflict some serious damage so I threw my bike at it’ … a grizzly bear. Photograph: Reuben Krabbe/Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images

It lunged forward and sank its teeth between my ribs and hips on my left side and soon I was in the bear’s mouth as it carried me 30 or 40ft towards a bush. I was in crushing pain. It put me down and I tried to gouge at its eyes but I couldn’t reach. I was thrashing while it pinned me and started biting and tearing at my thigh. It was so painful it felt like my hip was going to dislocate. It excavated into my thigh so far I could hear its teeth grinding against my femur like a dog chewing a bone.

I started saying goodbye to my wife and kids in my head and felt guilty that I’d even taken this trip in the first place. Then I realised I had a pocket knife. I had to use both hands while I was still pinned down but I eventually managed to get it out. The blade was under three inches long but I gave the bear a stab in its neck with all the energy I had. When I pulled the knife out, it lifted its head up and a big gush of blood splashed on to my waist. It got off me and walked to my bike, sniffed at it for a while and then stood back at the bush where it had stepped out from.

I knew I had to move fast otherwise I’d bleed to death. While the bear was still watching, I cut the sleeve off my shirt and made a tourniquet for my left leg. I looked over again and the bear had gone.

It was 12.01pm and I knew there wouldn’t be any loggers here until later in the afternoon. So, I dragged myself to my bicycle, gathered my wits and started pedalling with one leg for about 45 minutes until I finally saw a loggers’ cabin.

The door was open and I crashed into their stairwell, yelling for help. Thank God there were five guys there who seemed panicked but got their first aid kits out and called 911 while patching my 60 puncture wounds up. One wound was so big that my kidney was visible. An air ambulance came about an hour later; they gave me two pints of blood on the cabin floor and then flew me to hospital for six-and-a-half-hour surgery.

The next day, I began 40 days of recovery at Vancouver general hospital. They had me back up and walking 24 days after the attack and, by January 2020, the specialists were seeing some nerve regeneration in my left leg. By February, I began jogging on a treadmill. In September, I ran a half marathon.

Mentally, it was a lot harder than I thought it would be getting back into the woods. I made a conscious effort to walk in the bush behind my house as soon as I could so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by fear. I used tactics to help me, like playing music in headphones to drown out the noise of critters moving around. I have since bumped into a few black bears on the trails, too, but I yell and they get out of the way.

‘It grabbed my leg and pulled me straight down’ … a hippopotamus in the Zambezi River. Photograph: Blaz Accetto/Getty Images/EyeEm
‘It grabbed my leg and pulled me straight down’ … a hippopotamus in the Zambezi River.
Photograph: Blaz Accetto/Getty Images/EyeEm

‘The hippo was thrashing me around like a toy’ – Kristen Yaldor, 41, Odessa, Florida

My husband, Ryan, and I decided to go to Victoria Falls for my 37th birthday in 2018, and take a canoe trip down the Zambezi River on the day itself. The weather was great and the temperature was perfect. As far as safety was concerned, the guides just said that if you fall out, swim to shore as fast as you can. We brushed it off – we’re from Florida and are used to being on the water, so we didn’t think we’d fall out.

There were three canoes in total – the first one had a guide and another tourist, the second canoe was myself with Ryan in the back, and the third was another guide. We were only around the corner from where we had launched when a guide told us that he had seen a group of hippos ahead, so we should head to the bank. We were paddling left and I glanced over to look for them. I saw one submerged – and as we paddled a few more strokes, it came under our canoe. It leapt up and forced us out, bending the canoe with a big thud.

Kristen and her husband Ryan canoeing on the Zambezi River, just before the attack. Photograph: Courtesy of Kristen Yaldor
Kristen and her husband Ryan canoeing on the Zambezi River, just before the attack. Photograph: Courtesy of Kristen Yaldor

I fell forward towards where the hippo was and Ryan fell backwards towards the bank. We had lifejackets on so I quickly popped back to the surface. I started swimming, but after a few strokes it grabbed my leg and pulled me straight down. I was only about six strokes from the shore. My first instinct was to reach for the sky to see if my hands would break the surface and when I just felt more water, that’s when I went into survival mode. Just before I went down I had instinctively taken a deep breath and I told myself to hold it and stay calm.

As soon as the hippo dragged me to the bottom, it started thrashing me around like a toy. I bunched up around its snout and tried to pry its mouth open. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to, but it must have got freaked by me grabbing it, or my staying still made it think I was dead, since it then, surprisingly, let go.

Because I was wearing a lifejacket, I popped back up to the surface, but I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t kick my leg and I thought I had broken my knee. I yelled to everyone on the shore and started back stroking with my arms before reaching for the guide’s paddle, and was pulled out.

I think the whole episode only lasted about 45 seconds but, from Ryan’s account, when he came up to shore and looked back, he saw nothing. Even though I was being thrashed around underwater, there was no surface movement, I was just gone.

My entire trouser leg and the skin on my thigh and knee were ripped apart. I could see my muscle, and a chunk of it was sitting on top of my leg. We waited 45 minutes for a helicopter to come and take us to the local hospital. They prepped me there and then we waited for an emergency flight to take us back to the trauma centre in Johannesburg.

My femur was broken and I also needed a skin graft. I spent two weeks in the Johannesburg hospital before taking a medical flight home to finish the remaining procedures. I have had 21 surgeries to date and I don’t know if it’s because nerves were severed, but I have had hardly any pain throughout.

I’m very determined. I didn’t ever think I wouldn’t be able to walk again. My husband signed me up for a charity 5k run when I wasn’t even able to walk, knowing that I’m goal-oriented. I told him that if I was able to achieve it, he would need to dress up as a hippo and come with me. Even though I couldn’t run, we took part in 2019. After that, we signed up for a 10k, which we completed in November, and in January we’re doing a half marathon.

The attack was so instantaneous that I didn’t properly see the hippo. I haven’t been haunted by PTSD. My struggle has been to get over the muscle loss and to walk again. I’m almost there now, and I’ve just finished physical therapy. I know I’m going to be working on it for the rest of my life but that’s OK. At least I’m still here and doing the things that I want to do. I just won’t go back canoeing on the Zambezi again.

This article by Ammar Kalia was first published by The Guardian on 4 January 2022. Lead Image: ‘We have to learn to live with them, not to kill them from fear’ … a great white shark. Photograph: Brad Leue/Alamy.


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