Subscribe to the OSS Weekly Newsletter!

Playing Dead Is Rarely the Answer, Despite What Nature Tells Us

Snakes do it. Possums do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it, let’s all play dead!

This article was first published in The Skeptical Inquirer.

Properly called “tonic immobility,” feigning death when approached by a predator is a fairly common tactic across the animal kingdom. Some creatures go the extra mile to sell the charade, excreting stinking bodily fluids to make attackers think they’re a rotting corpse that would be downright dangerous to eat. But should we (humans) ever do it?

No, not when it’s 7 a.m. and your partner is trying to wake you up to take the garbage out. But when faced with a wild animal with the potential to kill or seriously maim us, should our reaction ever be to play dead?

I looked into fourteen different types of animals that you could encounter in North America, and, for only two of them, playing dead was a recommended action. For the rest, you’ll need to keep your wits about you to know what to do, so let’s get into some details.


Not all bears are built the same. In North America, there are three types you have a chance of meeting: black bears, brown bears, and polar bears. What about grizzly bears? That’s just the name for the subset of brown bears that call North America home! Unfortunately, each of these bear varieties needs a different approach if they approach you. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to tell these bears apart—it’s all in their names.

Black bears are typically smaller than their brown brethren and, despite the name, not always black. They can range from blonde to reddish brown and have a straight facial profile (as opposed to a brown bear’s slightly dished one). With black bears, your initial strategy should be one of intimidation. These guys are not very aggressive and typically avoid humans if they know they’re there. To that end, when hiking in black bear territory, you’d do good to talk loudly, bang a stick, carry bear bells, or sing camp tunes—anything to make them aware of your presence. If spotted by a black bear, you’ll want to make yourself as big as possible, make as much noise as you can, and slowly back away. Don’t run, and especially don’t climb a tree because the bear is almost certainly better at it than you. Do not play dead. You’re better off trying to attack it if you’re out of other options.

On the other hand, brown bears/grizzlies are one of the rare cases you do want to play dead! First though, backing away is still a better bet. Running is still a bad idea, but so is trying to intimidate a brown bear. They are big vicious mammals, and we are small and soft. If backing away isn’t working and the bear continues to come toward you, drop to the ground, keep your backpack on for the modicum of protection it will provide, and cover your head and neck with your hands. Hopefully, after a few sniffs, the brown bear will leave you be. Wait at least twenty minutes to ensure they’re well and truly gone. If none of that works, you can try to fight, but it’s not going to go well.

Polar bears are kind of the worst of both worlds. You will not intimidate a polar bear. You also will not make them lose interest in you by playing dead. Think about it—polar bears come from a land where food is sparse. They aren’t to be deterred by day-old meat. With these arctic giants, you want to back away slowly (don’t run!) and then fight like your life depends on it—because it does.

If you have bear spray/mace, you want to aim it directly at the bear’s face as they’re charging you. But, above all, never, ever, ever apply bear spray to yourself or your camp as a deterrent. The novel smell of it may actually attract bears that would otherwise have left you alone!

Wolves, Cougars, and Coyotes

Despite their differences, the advice for dealing with these wild animals is remarkably similar. If you’re worried that you can’t tell a coyote from a wolf, don’t be because your actions should be the same either way. Wolves are also pretty massive compared to coyotes, so telling them apart isn’t too hard in a pinch. What about telling cougars from mountain lions? Trick question—they’re the same thing!

For any of these mammalian predators, you will first try intimidating them by being big, loud, and not playing dead. Specifically for cougars, experts advise clapping your hands loudly to imitate a gunshot. Most of the time, this will work, particularly with coyotes who tend to be quite timid. As you try to daunt them, you want to start slowly backing away. Again, not running. With wolves, you additionally want to maintain eye contact. While moving away, if you can pick up things to throw at the animal—rocks, branches, heavy nonessentials from your pockets—it’s a good idea, but don’t let gathering ammunition slow your retreat, and do not turn your back. Fighting should never be your response to cougars, coyotes, or wolves unless you are genuinely out of other options. And remember, cougars and coyotes can climb trees, so seek refuge elsewhere.


Snakes pose a bit of a tricky problem. While they’re not typically speedy, the last thing you want to do is run away from one if you’ve already been bitten. Like most animals in this article, attempts to intimidate them should come first—being loud, big, and a seeming threat to their safety. After that, it kind of depends what situation you’re in. Most importantly, if you have already been bit, you want to stay as still as you possibly can. Any movement will accelerate the venom’s course through your blood. If you haven’t been bit, rapidly leaving the area the snake is occupying is a good plan. Remember, most can scale trees, so go for lateral distance rather than vertical. In any case, fighting a snake (unless in a life-or-death situation) is a great way to get bit if you haven’t been already. Don’t do it.

Crocodiles and Alligators

Maybe you’ve heard that you should run away from a crocodilian in a zig-zag pattern. That is absolutely not true. The good news for you is that most humans are faster than crocodiles or alligators, particularly over distance. So, your first instinct should be to get as far away from them as fast as possible. If need be, you can try to hide up a tree. Making noise to deter these reptiles might work, but not as well as simply leaving them alone. In the terribly unfortunate circumstance that escape is not an option, go for their eyes and nostrils—they’re pretty much the only vulnerable part of them.

Birds of Prey

While perhaps not the typical animals thought of when animal attacks come up, owls, falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey have, on occasion, attacked humans. However, they tend to do so only in defense of their homes. With that in mind, faced with a flying fury, you want to run, not walk, away. You’ve probably stumbled too close to their nest, and until you leave the area, you will not be granted a reprieve from their assaults. Playing dead will get you nowhere, and climbing a tree may make the situation worse.


If you’ve dreamed of shark attacks since seeing the film Jaws, the good news is that shark attacks remain exceedingly rare. Despite their reputations as cold-blooded killers, most sharks approach humans out of curiosity rather than predation. In such a situation, if the shark seems calm, you want to signal to the shark that you’re not a threat. Keep your body as small as possible and stay still, but swivel so that you continue tracking it with your head and eyes. Sharks would rather attack from a flanking position, so don’t give them one. If you can put your back up against something, even better. If they’re not leaving you alone, you can slowly and calmly swim backward toward shore, but try to splash as little as possible.

People are commonly told to attack a shark’s nose if forced to engage, and that’s not wrong. But remember that right under that nose is a mouth full of very sharp teeth. The gills are also quite sensitive and can’t bite back. Anything you have on your person is now a weapon to jab the shark with, including your snorkel!


It might surprise you to see bison on this list, but they are responsible for more injuries to humans than many realize. While not aggressive animals, they will attack if provoked and can be deadly. A bison can run faster than you, so running is not the answer. Instead, back away slowly and quietly and try to get anything you can between them and you—a car, rock, tree, anything. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can take on this herbivore in a fight; it comes armed and dangerous with two horns and will gore you given a chance.


As any Canadian can attest, moose are a lot bigger than you think and a lot scarier. While they can typically be run off by a good show of waving arms and loud yells, if that isn’t working, you do actually want to play dead! Like most hooved animals, moose are fast. And given their size, you’d have to get pretty high in a tree to avoid one intent on harming you. Given an opportunity, back away slowly while keeping up the intimidation act. Failing that, drop to the ground, protect your head, and hope this Canadian icon leaves you alone.

The bottom line is that the best way to avoid an animal attack is to avoid animals. Be sure to take all the preventative measures you can, such as properly storing food, keeping dogs on leashes, and hiking with a friend. Research the area you are going to and the types of animals that live there and ensure that others know where you will be and when to expect you back so that they can send help if need be.

Wild animals may seem inherently terrifying, but in the end, if you keep a calm head and make logical decisions, you will very likely be just fine. Besides, research shows that the overwhelming majority of animal injuries take place either at home or on a farm. The two biggest culprits? Domestic cats and dogs.


Back to top