Why Are Animals Afraid of Humans? (5 Reasons Explained)

Why Are Animals Afraid of Humans
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

When it comes to wildlife, hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are often told, “Animals are more afraid of us than we are of them.” This can be surprising when it comes to predatory species like lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

Even though you might not think that you’d come face-to-face with one of these predators and live to tell the tale, there’s a good chance that these animals would rather avoid you than attack you. After all, humans have been on this planet for a long time and during that time, they’ve established themselves as a predatory species. Humans aren’t even part of the natural food chain!

So, why are animals afraid of humans?

Animals are afraid of humans because they have a natural instinct to survive. Humans are big and loud, walk like predators, have a history of being predators, and are also unpredictable. Some animals may also be afraid of humans because of their personal experience or the experience of other animals that they’ve communicated with. 

Below, we’ll take an in-depth look at these reasons that animals naturally fear humans and I’ll answer some questions about the human-animal relationship and why certain species, like dogs, don’t always seem to fear humans.

Reason 1: The Survival Instinct

In one study, researchers used speakers to simulate human presence and tracked the movements of mid-sized predators like bobcats, skunks, and opossums. With the simulated human presence, opossums reduced foraging by 60%, skunks reduced activity by 40%, and bobcats shifted to more nocturnal hunting habits. Mountain lions also would abandon their kill if humans were nearby.

Human presence also affected the movements of deer mice, but in the opposite way. Deer mice increased their range by 45% and seemed to be less afraid, seemingly being aware that mid-sized predators weren’t on the prowl at the time. They also foraged more intensely.

You see, animals are hard-wired with an instinct to survive. This means that when they encounter something (like a human), they are more likely to run and hide than they are to try and approach you. Other times, like in the case of predators, they may just observe you until you make the first move.

After all, most animals don’t attack solely because they are hungry or trying to make a meal out of a person. They are more likely to attack if they are afraid or if you decide to approach them. Animals also might attack humans because they are afraid, which again speaks to the way they view humans as predators.

Reason 2: Humans Have A History Of Being Predators

While you may think that you don’t pose any threat to animals in the wild, they do not know that. Animals tend to perceive humans as a threat, which is why they view us as predators and reduce their movements when they know humans are near.

Humans have hunted animals for food since prehistoric times. We also have a history of capturing animals, putting them in cages, taking over their habitats, and killing them for sport or food. This alone would be enough to deter even predators like lions and tigers when they come near, even if we are completely defenseless.

Plus, when you look at the statistics, a human is much more likely to kill an animal than to be attacked by one. According to statistics from 2021, for example, an incredible 83 billion animals were killed around the world. These killings happened from hunting, poaching, the farming and meat industry, deforestation, and other human-animal interactions.

Reason 3: Humans Walk Like Predators

Large animals like elephants, hippos, and giraffes aside, humans tower over most smaller mammals. Our size alone is enough to deter many animals, especially when you consider that we stand up and walk on two legs.

Size does matter in the animal kingdom, which is why the hair of some animals stands up on end when they encounter a perceived threat. By making themselves physically bigger, they hope to scare the threat off.

Furthermore, this is the reason that people are told to stand tall and maintain eye contact if they encounter a wild animal like a tiger or leopard. If you crouch down and appear smaller, an animal might just attack because it’s afraid and thinks that it could win the fight.

Reason 4: Humans Are Unknown And Unpredictable

For some areas of the animal kingdom, humans are an unknown. We’ve all heard that expression, “curiosity killed the cat”. The reality in this statement is that sometimes, being too curious can end up killing an animal. They never know what type of humans they are going to stumble across in the wild.

Just like wild animals are unpredictable, humans are unpredictable in the sense that you never know how an individual member of the species will act. Plus, with the history between humans and animals, it’s no surprise that animals treat all humans like they are something to be afraid of.

Reason 5: Personal Experience

Finally, for some animals, a fear of humans comes from personal experience. They may have had a negative encounter with people that shapes how they feel or it may just be in the nature of their species to be afraid.

This is also something that affects those species that might have a good relationship with humans, such as dogs, cats, or horses. If an animal has a bad experience with humans, then it may not be friendly at all.

This is the case for dogs that are trained to fight or horses that are abused by their handlers- they may bite, kick, or otherwise attack when approached by a human, even one that has good intentions, because of their personal experience.

How Do We Know Animals Are Afraid of Humans?

An animal’s reaction to a human encounter by itself is enough to communicate that they are afraid of humans. Even when an animal doesn’t run away and instead just stands there, it’s often because they are frozen in fear and deciding what to do next.

That aside, in addition to the study mentioned earlier, another study was conducted on how badgers responded to human presence vs. how badgers responded to sounds from bears and dogs, their natural predators.

The conclusion of the study was that humans are more of a super predator, scaring badgers more than bears and dogs. It affected feeding times, how long the badger would look for food, and when it would leave its den. By contrast, playbacks of sounds from wolves, which are extinct in the area, had no effect on the badgers.

Why Are Animals Afraid Of Humans?

Animals are afraid of humans because of their instinct for survival. With the exception of wild animals that have had human encounters, humans are an unknown. What is known, though, is that there is a long history of humans killing animals and locking them in cages.

Additionally, many animals associate humans with being predators simply because they walk on two legs and stand tall. Those animals that have encounters with humans may also have had bad experiences that cause them to be afraid.

Why Do Animals Avoid Humans?

In most cases, animals avoid humans because they are an unknown. Whether they are afraid or just unsure, it’s not uncommon for animals to run and hide when they hear heavy footfalls or speaking voices. Other animals might freeze, either out of curiosity or fear.

It’s important to remember that even if an animal does let you approach, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s best to do so. You never know how that animal is going to respond when you get close, particularly if it is frozen out of fear and decides to attack.

A great example of this is deer. Deer are known for “freezing” when afraid, which is one of the reasons that they get hit by cars. That being said, they are also one of the more deadly animals in the United States and kill an estimated 120-200 people every year in the United States.

Are All Animals Naturally Scared Of Humans?

No, not every animal is afraid of humans. In fact, many domesticated species have close bonds with their human companions. Dogs, cats, and even farm animals like horses and pigs might develop close bonds with people.

Dogs in particular have an interesting bond with humans because they learned to depend on them. Before they were domesticated, dogs were foragers. They learned that if they continued eating instead of running when humans got close, they were able to forage for longer.

That being said, even these animals may be afraid of humans in certain circumstances. For example, dogs who are not well-socialized around certain people as a puppy learn to fear them.

This is the reason some dogs prefer men over women, women over men, or fear people who are different, such as small children, people in wheelchairs, and even people with different skin tones. Dogs may also fear people based on the way that they smell, as adrenaline, body odor, and other scents give a dog clues about human behavior and emotions.

Animals in wildlife reserves are another good example of animals that aren’t necessarily afraid of humans, which is why lions might approach you on safari without becoming afraid and attacking. They are used to human presence and because they live in a protected area where they are likely to have had positive or neutral encounters with humans, they aren’t usually as afraid as the same animals would be in the wild.

Final Word

Humans are generally defenseless and don’t have sharp teeth, claws, or other ways to defend themselves against predator attacks. So, why are animals afraid of humans?

Fear of humans is something that seems part of an animal’s DNA. This is likely because of the long history of violence between humans and animals. While we are taught to fear animals and that predators like sharks, bears, and lions are dangerous to us, humans actually pose the greater threat.

Animals fear humans because of their survival instinct. They will always choose to preserve themselves and their species, which is why even predators like mountain lions will run off if a human is too near. Animals may also be afraid of humans because we stand so tall or their personal experience.