The Surprising Animal That Kills 200 Humans a Year

July 19th 2016

Deer kill a surprising number of Americans each year, and the solution may seem counterintuitive to some.

Deer kill more than 200 people a year in vehicle crashes, and scientists say that introducing cougars to suburban populations could be the best way to prevent those crashes, The New York Times reports.

Deer cause more than a million car accidents per year, and reducing the deer population is a key strategy in bringing the number of accidents down, according to a recent study in the journal Conservation Letters.

Cougars eat deer, and scientists say that if more cougars lived in the eastern U.S., it would greatly reduce the deer population.

"Wolves would do the trick just as well, but cougars are able to live near people with fewer conflicts, as they have always done in suburban areas near Los Angeles, the San Francisco bay area, Seattle, and other major metro areas out West," wildlife scientist and one of the study's authors, Laura R. Prugh from the University of Washington, told ATTN:.

The research team studied states where eastern cougars historically lived but were wiped out by the 1900s. They found that if cougars returned to those places, 155 deaths and 21,400 injuries could be avoided a year. The U.S. would also save $2.1 billion in collision-related costs over a period of 30 years, according to researchers.

Eastern cougar. Flickr/Bruce Tuten - flic.kr

Prugh said that reducing the deer population with hunting hasn't worked in the eastern U.S., and it's time for the big cats to step in.

"Without large carnivores like cougars or wolves to keep their populations in check, and with a bonanza of food created by agriculture and landscaping, deer populations have exploded in the eastern U.S.," she said. "Efforts to reduce deer by hunters, government-sponsored culls, sterilization, and sharp-shooting operations haven't done the job. Out west, wolves and cougars help to keep deer numbers relatively low."

But cougars are scary, and people may not like the idea of living near them.

Partially because of this fear, Prugh thinks conservationists should wait for cougars to naturally move back east. "If enough cougars, including females, can make it to some large forested areas out east and establish a breeding population, they could start recolonizing the eastern states on their own," she said. "I think their recovery would be less polarizing for society if it happened naturally, so I am more in favor of being patient and waiting for the cougars to do it themselves than humans intervening to speed it up."

However, Prugh said people should be more afraid of deer than cougars.

"Cougars are powerful, large animals with sharp teeth and claws, and they do occasionally attack and kill people, but over the past 110 years, cougars have killed only 21 people in North America," she said. "Collisions with deer kill more than 200 people per year, and those rates continue to rise each year."

Human brains are probably wired to be afraid of large predators like cougars, even if it's not rational, according to Prugh.

"Our fear of carnivores like cougars is primal, likely rooted in our evolutionary history as primates," she said. "When you actually look at the odds, there is no rational basis for such intense worry."

Instead, cougars should be afraid of people.

"They're far more scared of us than we are of them, with good reason — we completely wiped them out from most of the country," Prugh said.

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