Besides Dingoes, What Animals Attack Human Children?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 13 2012 3:48 PM

The Dingo Diet

What other animals attack and eat human babies?

A Dingo stands in an enclosure at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre at the Toolern Vale in rural Victoria.
An Australian dingo is capable of preying on human children

Photograph by WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images.

An Australian coroner declared on Tuesday that a dingo was responsible for the 1980 death of infant Azaria Chamberlain. In clearing the child’s parents of responsibility in the famous case, the coroner noted that more recent dingo attacks have proven the wild dogs willing and able to attack small humans. What other animals are known to prey on human children?

Lions, tigers, and bears, among others. There are basically two classes of man-eating beast. Tigers, saltwater crocodiles, lions, jaguars, wolves, spotted hyenas, and some bear species clearly view humans as a potential foodstuff. They prefer vulnerable children to adults, but they have been known to hunt adults as well. A group of smaller animals, including dingoes, coyotes, cougars, and chimpanzees, are more selective and opportunistic. They’re willing to seize an infant or child, but are reluctant to launch an unprovoked, predatory attack against an adult.

Tigers seem to be the species most inclined to prey on humans. Villagers living in the Sundarbans in eastern India have been so terrorized by tigers that few will venture into the wilderness alone. The attacks are probably the result of deforestation and declining populations of alternative prey such as deer and wild boar. Some tiger experts, however, have speculated that individuals who successfully hunt one or two humans become dedicated “man-eaters.” Some African lions have also become famously accomplished at hunting humans.

Among bears, grizzlies inspire the most terror in American hearts, probably because they’re huge and relatively rare. Smaller, more common black bears, however, have also preyed on humans. A study published last year reported that 88 percent of the 59 fatal black bear attacks in North America between 1900 and 2009 were likely predatory in nature, and, in many cases, the bear ate the human victim. (Fatal, unprovoked attacks are far more common in Canada and Alaska than in the lower 48 states.) Black bears strongly prefer children, but they have seized adults as well. Asian sloth bears and polar bears also occasionally prey on humans, but there are no reliable reports of unprovoked attacks by giant pandas.

When it comes to top predators like tigers and lions, the best way to avoid becoming lunch is to stay away from them. If you have to enter their range, go in a group. Black bears, for example, almost never prey on groups of three or more people. Tigers have been known to attack groups of even six or eight humans, but villagers report successfully fighting them off with sticks and machetes.

As for the less brazen predators, like coyotes, chimps, and dingoes, a little behavior modification can usually prevent an attack. They key is to look big, confident, and intimidating. Predators attack children not only because they’re small, but because they tend to flail around. Chaotic movements make people look like they’re already in distress. If confronted by one of these smaller predators, don’t turn your back and run—they’ll just take that as confirmation that you’re potential prey. Some wildlife experts suggest wearing a mask on the back of your head so that lurking predators won’t think they’ve escaped observation.

Don’t panic—you and your baby are very, very unlikely to be killed by a rampaging carnivore. According to CDC statistics, just 1,989 Americans have been killed by animals between 1999 and 2008, with most of those deaths attributable to dogs, spiders, and insects.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Quammen, author of Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, and Howard Quigley of Panthera.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.