Survival stories: When animals attack (and humans survive)

When Eric Nerhus escaped from the jaws of a great white shark, he joined an exclusive club: the people who have tangled with the planet's most dangerous creatures - and yet lived to tell the tale

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Shark

He was the man who, quite literally, snatched back his life from the gnashing jaws of death. Australian diver Eric Nerhus this week became one of the luckiest people alive after he survived being swallowed head-first by a 10-foot great white shark. The 41-year-old was fishing for abalone in murky waters near the town of Eden, New South Wales, when the shark attacked. In a remarkable piece of good fortune, the shark's jaws clamped down on Mr Nerhus's lead diving belt, sparing him what would almost certainly have been a fatal blow. "I felt down to the eye socket with my two fingers and poked them into the socket," Mr Nerhus said. "The shark reacted by opening its mouth and I just tried to wriggle out." Mr Nerhus was eventually rescued by his son and flown to hospital where he was treated for multiple lacerations and a broken nose.

Leopard

While most Britons have to deal with little more than a stray fox strolling into their neighbourhood, residents of Nisak, an affluent city close to India's financial capital Mumbai, woke up earlier this month to find an angry leopard prowling their streets.

When a crowd began pelting it with stones the startled animal sunk its teeth into a man's arm. Eventually, after a seven-hour chase it was cornered and clubbed to death. The footage was broadcast on television in India and sparked a nationwide debate about the implications of the country's creeping urbanisation on wildlife. The number of leopard attacks is steadily rising as India's sprawling cities and increasing urbanisation eat further and further into what were once natural habitats for the big cats.

Grizzly bear

Ask anyone who lives in bear country how to protect yourself from a grizzly attack and the advice will always be: "Don't fight back." But that is exactly what 68-year-old hunting veteran Gene Moe did in November 2000 as he was set upon by an Alaskan brown bear, one of the largest bears in the world, whose paws are the size of a man's face. In a remarkable escape, Mr Moe managed to stab the bear at least three times before reaching for his gun and killing it. "The bear was trying just to survive," Mr Moe told the National Geographic Channel's Hunter Hunted documentary. "The bear was starving and needed the meat. I had no choice but to defend myself." Mr Moe now has the bear's skin pinned to his living room wall.

Elephant

Michael Fay was accustomed to being charged at by elephants. As an internationally acclaimed explorer who once spent 455 days walking througheast Africa, he had often come across an angry pachyderm or two.

But early in 2003 he and his companions were attacked by a female protecting her calf in the Loango National Park, Gabon. Mr Fay was gored by her tusks.

"You mess with elephants all the time and you get close to them, eventually one of them is going to go for the full Monty," he told National Geographic magazine. "I just thank God that I had time to turn around, grab those tusks and ride that bronco as long as I could."

White tiger

The professional magician Roy Horn, one half of the Las Vegas act Siegfried and Roy, received the worst birthday present of his life in October 2003 when he was mauled during a live show by his pet white tiger. The seven-year-old male, known as Montecore, had been bred in captivity and never before showed a violent side. After the show, Horn's partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, said Montecore was simply wanting to play with Horn, who before passing out reportedly told journalists: "Don't kill the cat." Horn was rushed to hospital in a critical condition and following extensive surgery, began a return to health. Montecore was spared and returned to his enclosure.

Hippopotamus

It was an exotic tale of beauty and the beast played out in the African bush - without the fairytale ending.

When Diana Tilden-Davis, winner of Miss South Africa 1991 and a former finalist in the Miss World contest, was paddling in a canoe in the Okavango Delta in Botswana four years ago she was attacked by a hippopotamus which nearly bit off her leg. According to her husband, who helped Ms Tilden-Davis run a safari company in the area, hippos were behaving aggressively at the time because the region had been hit by a serious drought and food was hard to come by.

The beauty queen was lucky to escape with her life and was still walking on crutches two years later. Two weeks before she was attacked, another woman, who was on her honeymoon, was killed by a hippo on the same stretch of water.

Alligator

"I think my head was so far down his mouth that I touched his taste buds," mused tourist James Morrow after a terrifying near-miss with an alligator while snorkelling in Florida. "When he tasted me, I think that's why he let me go." The 45-year-old from Florida is one of the few people to have survived an attack by a hungry gator. While on an ill-fated trip in 1997, Mr Morrow was swimming underwater when he suddenly found his head inside an alligator's mouth. He suffered horrific injuries, including a punctured lung and multiple head wounds, but was saved by his mask, which took the brunt of the attack.

Dolphin

Sun, sea, and swimming with dolphins: it sounded like the perfect holiday. While Billie Finley and her three fellow Americans were in Cancun, Mexico, last October, they visited an aquarium, where they paid to swim with the dolphins. One of the females was bleeding from injuries. The tourists were told she was in season and it was not unusual for dolphins to fight, but there was no risk to humans. But minutes into her session, Ms Finley was attacked by one of the six adult dolphins, which dragged her across the pool by her feet and slammed her against a wall. "Initially everything was calm, they were having pictures taken then suddenly everything changed and the trainers were yelling at everyone to get out of the pool," Ms Finley recounted. She almost drowned and suffered cuts.

Polar bear

Kootoo Shaw, a 46-year-old Inuit guide from the remote Canadian town of Kimmirut, used to make his living guiding hunting parties until he was attacked by a polar bear. Mr Shaw was three days into a hunt when he was set upon by the bear as he slept in his tent. Another hunter managed to shoot the bear. Mr Shaw suffered numerous deep slashes and needed nearly 300 stitches to reattach his scalp. "He had his claws under my neck for a while, I could hear his breathing," Mr Shaw recalled. In recent years, polar bear attacks have become more common as the animals wander further to find food due to rising global temperatures.

Cougar

Forget your rifle, your hunting knife and your pepper spray. The ultimate fighting tool of the great outdoors is ... a ball-point. In what is the second remarkable escape from an animal attack this week, a 65-year-old Californian woman managed to save her husband's life after fighting off a cougar with nothing more than a pen.

Jim and Nell Hamm were hiking in northern California when the mountain lion pounced on them. "Jim was talking to me all through this," Mrs Hamm said. "He said, 'I've got a pen in my pocket and get the pen and jab him in the eye. So I got the pen and tried to put it in his eye, but it didn't want to go in as easy as I thought it would."

Mr Hamm was taken to hospital suffering multiple lacerations and two cougars were later shot by rangers.

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