Alligator kills woman in Hilton Head, S.C. — how common are fatal wild animal attacks?

The community of Hilton Head, S.C. is in mourning after a 45-year-old resident was killed by an alligator on Monday. Cassandra Cline, a local kindergarten teacher, was reportedly walking her dog near a lagoon when the alligator approached, grabbing hold of her dog’s leash. When Cline pulled back, trying to save the pet, the alligator lunged at her and dragged her into the small body of water instead. 

Authorities were called to the private lagoon, located on the Sea Pines Resort property, but by the time they arrived Cline was no longer conscious. Speaking on the Today show Tuesday morning, Cline’s mother said she is devastated by the news. “I cannot make any sense of what’s happened, none at all,” her mother said through tears. “Because she would never go near an alligator, she would never irritate an alligator. I just keep thinking about her being dragged away by that, and I can’t imagine it.”

Cline’s death, while terribly tragic, isn’t the first deadly alligator encounter in South Carolina. In 2016, a 90-year-old woman was found dead in a pond near the assisted living facility where she resided, and an autopsy later revealed she’d been bitten by an alligator. To be sure, fatal attacks from alligators are not the norm. Since the first deadly attack on record in 1973, there have been less than 25 fatal attacks nationwide.

That’s not to say that wild animals pose no threat to humans. But what exactly is the risk of dying this way — and is there something you should be doing to stay safe?

The most recent data come from a report published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine this past March. In it, researchers from Stanford University studied mortality statistics from 2008-15, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC’s data, there were 1,610 animal-related deaths from 2008 to 2015, the majority resulting from large mammals.

The lead Stanford researcher behind the study, Jared Forrester, MD, said in a statement that the numbers are consistent with earlier research and show once again that the main threat is not from ferocious animals like we see in movies and TV shows. “Importantly, most deaths are not actually due to wild animals like mountain lions, wolves, bears, sharks, etc., but are a result of deadly encounters with farm animals, anaphylaxis from bees, wasps, or hornet stings, and dog attacks,” said Forrester. “So, while it is important that people recreating in the wilderness know what to do when they encounter a potentially dangerous animal, the actual risk of death is quite low.”

One of the major killers in the group was venomous insects such as bees and wasps, but the highest number of deaths were caused by farm animals such as horses, cows, and pigs.  “Preventing potentially fatal farm animal encounters should be a better promoted and supported public health initiative,” said Forrester. “Farming remains an industry with a deficit of work-related injury reporting, and opportunities exist to improve safety measures and injury reporting on farms in the U.S.”

Overall, human deaths from wild animals remain a rarity — just over 200 annually, according to this report. But as Cline’s incident proves, it does happen.

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