In July 2023, we received an email from one of our readers asking if more people are killed by cows than sharks each year. A recently published meme claimed that every year, 10 people are killed by sharks while 100 people are killed after cows step on them (the meme didn't specify where or whether those statistics were global).
(Imgur user @WalkGood)
We used reverse-image search to investigate the source of the meme in question and found out that it was first published back in March 2013, with a slightly different caption at the bottom that read "fear the real killer." Since 2013, this meme been shared various times on platforms, such as 9GAG, Imgur, Twitter, and Reddit. It was also translated to other languages, such as Polish and Ukrainian.
(9GAG user @luiseltico)
Moreover, multiple articles have been published on the topic; one of them on Discovery.com read:
You've seen "Jaws." You know sharks can be deadly. But in reality, they don't kill very many people each year. There are approximately five deaths caused by sharks annually, while horses kill about 20 people a year and cows kill about 22. Crocodiles gobble up 1,000 people a year. By spreading malaria, mosquitos kill hundreds of thousands more people than sharks do every year. Deer also cause hundreds of deaths, mostly by running out in front of cars.
We started our investigation by checking how many people are killed by sharks annually around the globe. The International Shark Attack File (ISAF), the only global, scientifically verified database of shark attacks, reported that in 2022, only five shark attacks resulted in fatalities. In 2013, there were 10 fatalities worldwide, which reportedly was higher than the 10-year average from 2003-2012. That fatalities number was most probably the source of the claim from the meme that sharks kill 10 people every year, given that the meme was originally published in 2013. ISAF claimed that shark-related fatality rates have been declining for decades.
Short-term trends show both fatal and non-fatal bites to be decreasing. The total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year. Fatality rates have been declining for decades, reflecting advances in beach safety, medical treatment and public awareness.
When it comes to deaths caused by cows, the statistics many articles referred to came from 2003-2007 data provided by the U.S. enters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cow-related fatalities in the five-year period averaged 22 a year in the U.S only. More in-depth study of deaths caused by cattle focused on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Ten of the 21 fatalities involved attacks by individual bulls, six involved attacks by individual cows, and five involved multiple cattle.
These deaths occurred throughout the year, and decedents tended to be older (aged ≥60 years) (67%) and male (95%). Except in one case, the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head or chest. Circumstances associated with these deaths included working with cattle in enclosed areas (33%), moving or herding cattle (24%), loading (14%), and feeding (14%). One third of the deaths were caused by animals that had previously exhibited aggressive behavior. To reduce the risk for death from cattle-caused injuries, farmers and ranchers should be aware of and follow recommended practices for safe livestock-handling facilities and proper precautions for working with cattle, especially cattle that have exhibited aggressiveness.
In 2013 (when the meme in question was published), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 109 deaths were caused by cattle ranching and farming, and 21 of them were the result of violence and other injuries by persons or animals. More recent data showed that in 2021, cattle-ranching-related fatal injuries amounted to 96 that year, 13 of which occurred via violence and other injuries by persons or animals. We have found no global dataset of how many people were killed annually by cows; however, various studies have been conducted on this topic, for example in Sweden and the U.K. Based on the available data from just the U.S. and a few other countries, on average more people are killed annually by cows than sharks. Therefore, we rate the claim as "True."
The belief that sharks kill more people than cows is an example of an availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is a cognitive shortcut that relies on the first examples that come to mind when evaluating a particular topic, concept, method, or decision. According to this heuristic, if something can be remembered easily, it must be significant, or at least more significant than other solutions that are not as quickly remembered.
People might believe that sharks kill more people each year than cows, since shark attacks are often reported in the media and are the subject of many movies and TV shows. Incidents involving cows causing human deaths are far less reported on or talked about; therefore, they might seem less frequent or probable.
While we're on the subject, Snopes previously fact-checked the claim that falling coconuts kill more people annually than sharks, for which we were unable to draw a solid conclusion due to a dearth of evidence.