The Animals Aren’t the Only Thing to Fear, Know the Law to Survive an Animal Attack – Pennsylvania

In our last newsletter, we shared three real-life stories of people fighting off a wild bear attack. These scenarios beg the question: How can a person legally defend themselves against an attacking animal?

We asked your Independent Program Attorney to answer this question for you, so you will know what to do if you are attacked by an animal.


Pennsylvania Law does provide safeguards against cruelty to animals in Chapter 55, Subchapter B. The crime of Aggravated Cruelty To Animals is contained in Section 5534 as is defined as when a person intentionally or knowingly tortures an animal, neglects an animal or beats or abuses an animal and such treatment results in serious bodily injury or death to that animal. Pennsylvania Law just recently overhauled the animal cruelty section, replacing the former Section 5511. This statute is the primary basis for criminal prosecutions associated with using deadly force against an animal. However, there are several notable exemptions from this law, specifically for our purposes: the killing of an animal found pursuing, wounding or killing a domestic animal or domestic fowl. As a result, one who kills another animal to protect his own animals will not face criminal penalties. But what about when you kill an animal to protect yourself or another person?

Pennsylvania Law specifically addresses the protective use of deadly force against dangerous dogs. Under 3 Pa.C.S. Section 459-501, a person may kill any dog that is:

  • Pursuing, wounding or killing any domestic animal
  • Wounding or killing other dogs, cats or household pets; or
  • Pursuing, wounding or attacking a human being.

What if the attacking animal is not a dog? Chapter Five of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code addresses the justified use of deadly force in the common context among human beings, but there is no general “defense against animals” statute in Pennsylvania. Justification is a legal excuse. When you raise a justification defense, you are saying “yes, I did something that is generally a crime, but the law recognizes the reason why I did it.” In order to use justified use deadly force in Pennsylvania, you must have 1)A reasonable belief, 2) that deadly force is immediately necessary to protect himself or another against 3) death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sexual assault by force.

All 3 prongs must be met in order for deadly force to be justified. In the case of a wild animal, kidnapping and sexual assault are clearly not at issue so let’s discuss this in the context of death or serious bodily injury.

Scenario 1: Imagine you are in the woods on a hike with your wife and kids. As you are walking down the trail, a bobcat pops out in front of you. He is large and starts stalking towards you and your family. You, your wife, and the kids are scared. This wild animal is coming for you and you don’t know what its intentions are but it seems to you like he is probably hungry. You pull out your gun and shoot the bobcat, killing it.

In order to have a justification defense, you must first have committed an act that would generally be considered criminal. In this case, you intentionally shot and animal resulting in its death. This would be classified as Aggravated Cruelty to Animals. The next step in evaluating the case for a justification defense. In other words, did you reasonably believe that your use of deadly force against this bobcat was immediately necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to you or your family? Is it reasonable to believe that a bobcat can cause injury or death? Yes, of course it is. They are dangerous animals who are large and capable of injuring humans. Was the use of force immediately necessary? Yes, the bobcat was coming at you and your family quickly. You have no way of knowing what it is intending to do, but you can’t possibly wait around and see because if you do that, you will probably be too late. In this scenario, your killing of the bobcat would be justified.

Scenario 2. You are on the same hike with your family, only this time instead of the bobcat, you look out into the woods and about 100 yards away you see a black bear. The bear is alone in the woods and walking away from you. Despite the fact that you were walking and talking and making noise, the bear does not seem to be aware of you. As you continue to watch, the bear continues to walk away from you.

In this scenario, there is no reasonable belief that this bear would cause you harm that could only be prevented with immediate use of deadly force. You cannot shoot this bear just because. Now, a vigilant gun owner should always be alert and aware of surroundings and keep a watch on this bear as with wild animals, things can change in an instant and what was not justified, could become justified if this bear changes its course and starts charging towards you.

Until now, we have been talking about Pennsylvania law. What about federal law? The federal law has actually had the foresight to specifically provide that a person may kill an endangered animal in self-defense, such as the regulations concerning the Mexican Wolf in 50 C.F.R. Sec. 17.84(k)(3)(xii), or the Grizzly Bear in 50 C.F.R. Sec. 17.40(b)(i)(B).  Unlike the Texas statutes, this makes the federal law clear and comprehendible.  Therefore, if you are carrying your concealed handgun in a national park and you find yourself face to face with a Grizzly Bear, you can use your gun without fear of federal prosecution.

To View the law for defense against animals in other states click on the state names below:








Select U.S. States and Federal Law 

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