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Izu, an African lion at San Diego Zoos Wild Animal Park, growls and looks scary on Feb. 15, 2008. (Ken Bohn/AP)
Izu, an African lion at San Diego Zoos Wild Animal Park, growls and looks scary on Feb. 15, 2008. (Ken Bohn/AP)

How to survive an African lion attack (hint: pretend it’s a Canadian bear) Add to ...

A Montreal teenager who was mauled by a lion in South Africa on Monday and survived with leg injuries was the victim of a rare type of lion attack – one where the beast was caged.

Lauren Fagen, 18, was apparently trying to kiss the fur of a lion when it reached through the bars and pulled her legs into the cage. The lion’s mate joined the attack. Other volunteers at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre rescued Fagen by beating the lions back with sticks.

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It’s a terrifying story, but unusual. Most attacks by African lions happen in the open, prompting us to wonder: How do you survive a confrontation with a lion, which can weigh as much as 200 kilograms or more?

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the basic tips for lion safety are similar to those given to people travelling in Canada’s bear country: stay calm; assess the situation (Is the lion/bear hungry? Scared? Defending its territory or its young?); stand your ground – don’t run away and never turn your back on the animal; make yourself larger by waving your arms and spreading your legs; and, if the lion or bear attacks, fight like hell.

There is one major difference, however, in the abundance of online advice about confronting bears and lions in the wild: Avoid eye contact with a bear at all costs, but maintain it with a lion.

One major similarity: If the lion or bear has decided you are food, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to survive unless you are able to outrun or outfight your attacker, or can get to safety up a tree or in the safari jeep you probably never should have left in the first place.

Also: Don’t try to kiss them.

Lion attacks are a regular occurrence in African countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique, where there is an ongoing tension between lion and man over territory and livestock. There are as many as 120 attacks a year in Tanzania alone, and three-quarters of them are fatal. The attacks are not the work of so-called “man-eaters” – lions that have developed a taste for human flesh. Generally, a lion will attack for the same reasons a bear will: to get to food; to protect itself or its young; or because it has been surprised.

Like bears, lions for the most part want to avoid humans, and for every attack there are uncounted confrontations that end agreeably for both parties. One wildlife biologist who has walked away unscathed from numerous false charges by angry lions says in this video that the experiences were the scariest and most exhilarating of her life.

“It’s like an icy-cold feeling,” Alayne Cotterill says in the video. “It’s very unrealistic. It happens so fast and it’s such a strong surge of emotion. It’s quite hard to describe.”

But, adds Cotterill, surviving the encounters teaches you something important about lions and other wild animals. “They are not indiscriminate killers,” she says. “They really assess a situation and make a decision based on all sorts of factors.”

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