Since completing university, Paul has worked as a bookseller; librarian; and freelance writer. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.
Before I give my top 10 list of the most dangerous animals in California, I do want to make it very clear that most animals are perfectly safe if left alone. They generally only attack under rare circumstances, such as if they are starving, or have been startled, or if they believe that their young are threatened.
If you want to stay safe, the best thing to do is to just take common sense precautions and don’t intrude into the animal’s space. Most wild animals are generally afraid of humans and will run or swim away if they see or hear you coming.
The other thing to remember is that we humans kill far more animals than the other way around. The reality is that we are much more of a danger to them, than they are to us. Animal deaths happen through excessive hunting, being hit by traffic on the road, or their habitat and food sources being reduced and lost to human encroachment.
10 Most Dangerous Animals in California
- Black Bears
- Mountain Lions
- Great White Shark
- Killer Bees
- Venomous Spiders
I will explain each animal selected in more detail below.
1. Black Bears
Bears inspire awe and excitement, as well as fear. There used to be a large population of brown bears (also known as grizzlies) in the Golden State, but the last of these was killed in 1922, as far as we know, leaving the more versatile black bear to dominate.
Despite their name, the black bears to be found in California are rarely black, more often they are brown in color. If you encounter one, you should keep your distance. These bears are less aggressive than grizzlies, but still capable of killing a human, although in practice they will generally either run away when encountered, or limit themselves to mock charges. They are most likely to attack if they are starving, or protecting young. If attacked, you should fight back, rather than playing dead or submitting.
Rattlesnakes are the only venomous snake native to California. There are a number of different species in the state, including: the northern Pacific rattlesnake, the Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, Speckled rattlesnake, Red Diamond rattlesnake, Southern Pacific, Great Basin rattlesnake and the Mojave rattlesnake.
Rattlesnakes are certainly dangerous, but they won’t generally strike unless startled or provoked and will almost always retreat if given the chance. Most rattlesnake encounters happen by accident, when they are touched or stepped on by walkers or climbers.
There are usually around 800 rattlesnake bites each year in California and one or two deaths. If you are bitten, your chances of survival are very good, provided you seek immediate medical attention.
3. Mountain Lions
Also known as pumas, cougars, panthers, and catamounts, mountain lions are another dangerous animal that deserve to be high up on the list. They have a powerful bite which they normally deliver to the victims neck.
Attacks are rare, however, as this big cat does not see humans as prey and will normally seek to avoid them. The attacks that do occur are normally by mountain lions that are starving, or juveniles who are looking to establish new territory.
If you are unlucky enough to encounter an aggressive mountain lion, you should attempt to establish direct eye contact and scare it away by making lots of noise and throwing sticks and rocks.
Bobcats are small wild cats that inhabit most of the USA. Their name comes from their short stubby tail. Bobcats are solitary, largely nocturnal animals that actively avoid humans, so they are unlikely to be encountered.
Bobcats are skilled hunters and have been known to take down animals as big as deer. Despite their hunting abilities, sharp claws and teeth, the bobcat has never been known to attack humans or pets, however – so this is one dangerous Californian animal that you definitely don’t need to be worried about.
Attacks by coyotes on people are very rare, but these wild dogs can still be dangerous. Coyotes can also mate with domestic dogs, resulting in “coydogs”, which have the predatory instincts of the wild dog without the equivalent fear of people.
Coyotes and coydogs are more of a danger to livestock than people, but should still be respected and avoided.
Gray wolves were once common in California, but were effectively wiped out in the early 20th Century. Most modern wolf sightings turn out to be coyotes, dogs, wolf-dog hybrids, etc.
There has in fact only been one confirmed wolf sighting since 1924 - this occurred in 2011, when a gray wolf crossed into the state from Oregon. So although wolves can certainly be aggressive, you would have to be extremely unlucky to be attacked by one in California.
7. Great White Sharks
In the seawater, one animal to watch out for is the white shark. This fearsome predator has 3,000 teeth and a huge bite. Prey is ripped into mouth-sized pieces and swallowed whole.
Despite its reputation as a man-eater, however, the great white shark doesn’t deliberately target humans and fatalities from shark attacks are thankfully rare. Attacks against people are thought to occur because the shark mistakes the person for prey, such as seals.
When people do die from a shark bite, it is normally through blood loss rather than the bite itself. You are more likely to survive a shark attack if you have a buddy nearby to drag you to safety and rescue you.
8. Killer Bees
Killer bees, or Africanized honey bees, to give them their proper name, are basically cross-bred bees that are a combination of Western honey bees and African honey bees.
These bees have been spreading rapidly in recent years. Small swarms of them can take over European honey bee hives by invading the hive, killing the European queen and installing their own.
Although the sting of an Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of European bees, these bees are far more aggressive. They are faster to swarm, attack in bigger numbers, and pursue their victims for longer.
Although fewer than a dozen people have died from Africanized honey bee stings so far in the USA, these bees are spreading rapidly through California and their population is continually expanding.
9. Venomous Spiders
Luckily there are no brown recluse spiders in California, but there are two other venomous arachnids to watch out for.
The female southern black widow spider is notorious for eating the male after mating, as well as its venomous bite. Widows can be identified by the red hourglass marking on their back. Although their bite is certainly potent, it is rarely fatal in the modern age, thanks to antivenom.
Tarantulas are dark and hairy and typically measure 3 inches in length. The commonest time to see them is in the evening when they are often out hunting. Although a tarantula bite is very unlikely to kill you, it can be extremely painful and unpleasant and you should still seek medical help.
There are many different types of scorpion in California. None of them will usually kill you if they sting you, unless you are unfortunate enough to suffer an allergic reaction, but the sting can be extremely painful and you should seek treatment.
The scorpion with the most toxic sting is the bark scorpion. There is a small population of these living in southeastern California.
© 2013 Paul Goodman
Mai lief is sad on September 10, 2017:
Guys, we should be lucky to live in California. There are hardly any creatures that cause death here. Just stay away from thick bushes and foliage, and you should never get bitten!
Anonymous on June 17, 2017:
I have actually never seen any of these out in the wild except the Black Widow and the Rattle Snake. Only I've seen a Black Bear and a Coyote at a zoo. I've never seen a Killer Bee, Tarantula, Wolf, or a Bobcat. All we have left is the Great White Shark. If you live in the valley like I do, you don't have to deal with them.
Chris on May 18, 2015:
Dangerous misinformation to actually say that wolves are aggressive. Generally speaking, unless it's rabid or injured, a wolf will be the one to run away from an encounter.