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10 North American Animals with Misplaced Reputations

by Alex Miller
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Hollywood media thrives on sensationalism, exaggerating common human experiences and much of the world around us into something exciting, fun, and sometimes scary. This isn’t inherently a bad thing—entertainment is meant to entertain.

That fact, alongside some natural human biases, did, however, cause many of us to look at much of North America’s not-too-dangerous fauna as fearsome and yet, actually dangerous animals as harmless, cute, or simply unknown and rarely discussed. These misplaced reputations are too deeply ingrained to disappear easily, but discussing them is nonetheless good and important, even as many of us learn just how easily misconceptions spread.

Related: Top 10 Most Horrifyingly Painful Venoms

10 Excessively Feared—American Alligator

Why isn’t gator attacking you?!?!

Alligators are a huge part of American culture, often presented as a real approximation of scary monsters, likened to dinosaurs, and feared yet beloved icons of the Southern and Southeastern United States’ wildlife.

They are certainly quite intimidating—a large, muscular, armored body and a tremendously powerful bite that can crack a turtle’s shell with sharp teeth visible at all times. Combine all that with a seemingly grumpy disposition and their frequency in rural, swampy, river-adjacent areas to create the image of a truly intimidating creature.

That is all true, and they certainly should not be approached. Yet they really aren’t a huge threat. An actually quite timid personality and their natural inclination to escape from humans rather than fight them mean that they’re far more likely to be monsters in movies than they are in real life.[1]

9 Not Feared Enough—Moose

Moose Attacks Are Increasing

On the other end of things, moose are frequently perceived as charming, if off-putting, icons of the colder parts of North America, particularly Canada and Alaska, even though their range is far more widespread than that.

In some ways, moose are really incredible to behold. The largest members of the deer family, standing taller than many adult humans and potentially weighing more than 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms), it’s easy to see how amazing they are. And yet—also quite easy to imagine the threat they could pose.

Moose are unpredictable, potentially aggressive, and responsible for many gruesome car accidents as well as attacks on humans. While most encounters gone wrong don’t result in deaths, in places such as Alaska, they injure more people each year than bears do. They are certainly wonderful creatures, but best admired from a distance, not unlike most animals, in all fairness.[2]

8 Excessively Feared—Black Widow Spider

You’re WRONG About The Black Widow Spider

A common symbol of arachnophobia, frequently demonized and misunderstood, black widow spiders intimidate millions with their sleek, spindly appearance, powerful venom, and iconic coloring. They are also far, far less of a threat to people than we are to them.

Reluctant to bite unless pinned to your skin and generally quite reclusive, these spiders, while potentially dangerous, would really rather be left alone.

Even when bites do occur, deaths are spectacularly rare, mostly occurring in small children, the ill, or the elderly. Still tragic, certainly, but at only 4-8 yearly deaths in the United States, they should be far from the pressing concern they’re made out to be.[3]

7 Not Feared Enough—Gila Monster

Gila Monster BITE!

Despite having “monster” in its name, people rarely talk about this striking, impressive-looking lizard. Not frequently seen in movies, Hollywood seems to be ignoring this monster in its quest to put other animals in that same spotlight, and yet, Gila monsters may be more deserving of it than some.

While it is unlikely to kill you, Gila monsters are fairly slow but very tough, growing approximately to a length of 2 feet (0.6 meters), and are one of the few venomous lizards in the world.

Their venom, again, is thankfully not deadly. It is, however, a substance with incredibly unpleasant neurological effects and one that results in excruciating, debilitating pain worse than most animals could ever inflict. Maybe not dangerous, but definitely something you’d better avoid.[4]

6 Excessively Feared—Cougar

How to Survive a Cougar Attack

Cougars—typically referred to as mountain lions in North America—are by far the largest native cat in the considerably large area they’re found in.

As ferocious predators that can overpower extremely large prey, they’re certainly more dangerous than any other cat you may find living in the United States or Canada. If this wasn’t enough, they scream, emitting a loud and horrific sound that, to many, sounds like a woman in severe distress. That being said, unlike what many of us are led to believe, they in no way compare to other, far more dangerous large cats.

Attacks on humans are extremely rare and almost never fatal. A child alone in their territory might, unfortunately, be in danger, but in most scenarios, they pose as much of a threat as housecats do. As usual, do not approach them, but don’t imagine them to be tigers, either, as tigers they’re certainly not.[5]

5 Not Feared Enough—Alligator Snapping Turtle

CRAZY Alligator Snapping Turtle Bite!

Perhaps it is an ironic twist that alligators are feared too much and a turtle named after them not enough, though it does make sense. Actual alligators, while overblown as a threat, are still formidable animals. Turtles, however, aren’t frequently thought of that way. As we’ll see, though, not all turtles are so harmless.

Alligator snapping turtles are heavily armored, wonderfully prehistoric-looking creatures equipped with a threatening beak. They grow larger than any other freshwater turtle, and even their weight commonly reaches 175 pounds (80 kilograms), with a rumored specimen found in Kansas that allegedly weighed an astonishing 400 pounds (180 kilograms).

Their beak isn’t just for show, either. With a bite force of more than 1,000 PSI, it’s powerful enough to snap bones. It may “just” be a turtle, but a broken arm would still be a broken arm.[6]

4 Excessively Feared—Bears

Bear facts Just How Dangerous Are They?

Although many admit that their appearance is cute and cuddly, those same people do tend to add that actually cuddling a bear would end very, very badly. That is certainly true; keeping distance from wild animals is, as always, the smartest course of action, especially with one as large and equipped with as many fearsome weapons as bears are.

That being said, bears are surprisingly gentle animals. Despite all the survival techniques and various tips and tricks on how to survive a bear attack, many of which are more folklore than fact to begin with, bears most likely want nothing to do with you.

Unless a bear feels particularly threatened or starved or a human behaves in a way that would trigger certain predatory instincts, they’re far, far more likely to flee than fight. Even though attacks do happen, you’re more likely to be killed by dogs or even lightning than by these fluffy omnivores.[7]

3 Not Feared Enough—Polar Bear

Wild Polar Bear Tries To Break In – BBC Earth

A notable, major exception to bears being more intimidating than actually dangerous, though, is the polar bear. The lack of exposure most of us have to these animals means we generally know them as cute soda mascots or cartoon characters.

A fact that might escape some is that polar bears are actually found in North America, specifically in the northern parts of Alaska and Canada.

With paws measuring 1 foot (0.3 meters) long, a top speed higher than any human’s, and a more ferocious appetite due to the scarcity of food available for them, it’s a lucky thing that many of us will never encounter one. Their range is small, actually tragically so, and steadily decreasing. While there’s nearly no animal that could pose a threat to these incredible predators, unfortunately, the melting sea ice they occupy very much does.[8]

2 Excessively Feared—Brown Recluse Spider

You’re WRONG About The Brown Recluse Spider

Black widows, while infamous, are a very recognizable spider familiar to many who live in their range. The way people fear them, while exaggerated, is at least grounded. The same can’t quite be said about the horribly infamous brown recluse spider.

Frequently misidentified, the first major issue is that people often claim they saw a brown recluse or one even bit them, but the actual culprit was no such thing. The violin shape on their back, while very identifiable, is not something enough people look for, often calling any brown arachnid a brown recluse.

Furthermore, actual brown recluse spiders still endanger people far less than many believe. Their bite, sometimes necrotic in effect, results in some gruesome pictures. However, such effects are relatively rare, the whole experience rarely resulting in death, especially in a healthy adult. This is, of course, only if you do manage to get one to bite you. Like the name suggests, the brown recluse is thankfully quite reclusive![9]

1 Not Feared Enough—White-Tailed Deer

How to Avoid a Deer Strike | Consumer Reports

Eliciting images of cute animated films, white-tailed deer are certainly beautiful, majestic animals that are beloved for very good reasons. An incredible sight as adults and quite lovable to many as fawns with their white-spotted coats, they’re often thought of as harmless, friendly animals.

The reality, honestly, isn’t very far from that. They can be defensive, certainly, and an adult male’s antlers aren’t something anyone should wish to be targeted by, but they’re really not a major concern overall. As always, do not approach, but fear isn’t too necessary either.

And yet, deer are the deadliest animal in the United States. A lovely sight, not particularly threatening in person compared to many others, but they’re an animal that causes approximately 1.5 million vehicle accidents each year, resulting in about 150 deaths annually. Not a threatening animal in the traditional sense, no. But in North America’s car-focused culture, they do more harm than any other.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen