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John McCoy: No 'wildlife selfie' is worth dying for

What is it about wild animals that makes people do stupid things?

A couple of weeks ago, a woman leaned over a barrier at a zoo in Litchfield Park, Arizona, to take a picture of a jaguar. The cat reached its paw through a fence and clawed the woman’s arm.

Early news accounts reported that the woman had “jumped a barrier to try and get a selfie” with the jaguar. The woman, who would identify herself only as “Leanne,” later admitted she was wrong to reach over the barrier, but said she wasn’t trying to take a selfie. She also said zoo officials should move the fence farther from the barrier to prevent future incidents.

With all due respect, Leanne, the fence wouldn’t be “too close” if people like you would give wild animals the respect they’re due.

Every year, the news wires buzz with reports about people who get mauled, gored, bitten, kicked and stomped by animals they’ve approached.

Some of the attacks occur in zoos. Many others occur in parks, such as Yellowstone, where animals roam free. In almost every instance, they occur because people don’t fully realize how fast and powerful wild animals are, and how cantankerous they can be.

Take bison, for instance. They’re enormous creatures, standing 5 to 6 feet at the shoulder and weighing almost a ton. They appear slow and lethargic.

They aren’t. Every year, they injure more visitors to Yellowstone than all other wildlife species combined.

The first time I visited Yellowstone, a ranger handed me a flier that warned tourists not to approach bison too closely. He told a story about a park visitor who walked up to a big bull bison to take a photo. The bull was lying down, and the man wanted a picture of it standing up. To encourage the animal to stand, he gave it a swift kick in the rear. The bison whirled and killed him on the spot.

The ranger encouraged me to give Yellowstone’s other “charismatic megafauna” similar respect.

“I doubt if I need to warn you about bears,” he said. “But also give elk and moose plenty of space. Mule deer, too, and bighorn sheep if you happen across some.”

I’m sure rangers repeat that lecture to thousands of visitors every year. What surprises me is that so many choose to ignore the warning.

The lure of social media is powerful. Who wouldn’t want to post to Facebook or Instagram a cell-phone selfie of oneself with a big bull moose standing close behind?

Problem is, most cell phones’ wide-angle lenses require a would-be selfie shooter to approach within a few feet of the animal. Wide-angle lenses distort; they make objects look farther away than they really are. To get a selfie with a critter still prominent in the scene, a photographer has to get close — almost always close enough to make the animal nervous.

How prevalent has the “death or injury by selfie” phenomenon become? Prevalent, enough, that Wikipedia now maintains a page titled “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths.” It’s a frighteningly long list.

Most of the entries involve falls and vehicles, but a disturbing number are animal-related. Two sterling examples: A San Diego man tried to take a selfie with a rattlesnake and ended up in the hospital. A man in China drowned while trying to get a selfie with a zoo’s walrus.

Egad. Please, let these people’s misfortune be a lesson to us all.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

Funerals Today, Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Armstead, David - Noon, Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.

Crawford, Charles - 7:30 p.m., Andrews' residence, Belleaire at Devonshire, Scott Depot.

Duff, Catherine Ann - 11 a.m., Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Jarrett, Shirley - 1 p.m., Mt. Juliet United Methodist Church, Belle.

Lawrentz, Deo Mansfried - 11 a.m., Koontz Cemetery, Clendenin.

McGraw, Judy Fay - 2 p.m., Jodie Missionary Baptist Church, Jodie.

Mullins, Alice Ellen (Blessing) - Noon, Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Staats, Anthony Vernon “Tony” - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.