In the early morning light of a few days ago, I saw a black bear strolling casually at the edge of the woods. It wasn’t the first time, but as admirable as these creatures are, there’s always a little bit of anxiety they can produce in sensible people. You never know whether to run for the camera or the gun. Actually, you are advised not to run, but to walk carefully away.
I slipped back into the house, got the camera, and was glad to see the bear on a diagonal heading across the back yard. The bear wasn’t heading toward me, but it wasn’t headed away from me either, strolling casually, looking at me momentarily with a sidelong glance. As much as I enjoyed the visit, I couldn’t get it out of my head that a woman had been killed by a black bear just short of a week ago.
That black bear had been caged, kept as a pet, along with other “exotic” animals for which the woman had a permit. Thirty-seven year old Kelly Ann Waltz had entered the compound where the bear was kept, failing to follow the routine wild animal precaution of separating the animal from the human during feed time. Pennsylvania law requires that exotic animal compounds be divided into two sections so that the animal can be closed off during feeding or cleaning procedures.
The caged bear appeared docile as usual, and instead of making the extra effort to close off the bear, the woman diverted the bear with food thrown into the far side of the enclosure. Instead of chowing down, the bear attacked the woman. A neighbor, Scott Castone was called to the scene by his children, who had gotten wind of the attack. Castone got a handgun and killed the bear, too late to save the woman’s life.
The death of Kelly Ann Waltz has raised a lot of questions in the Pennsylvania county where the attack occurred. Kelly Ann Waltz and her husband, Michael, lived in a relatively secluded part of Monroe County, Pa. and had held the required permits to keep and maintain the animals. Ross Township, where the Waltz’s lived, had no ordnances against the keeping of wild animals; Waltz had a mountain lion and a Tiger at the premises also. However, the Pennsylvania Game commission says that the permits the Waltz’s had for exotic animal ownership had expired in June 2008.
Most people are not opposed to zoos, particularly well-designed zoos with adequate resources, breeding programs, zoological research activities, and other elements which enrich their lives. It’s hard to understand the motivations of people who would keep tigers, lions, or bears at home. Perhaps private ownership of caged wild animals should not be encouraged by state laws and permits.
The bear that killed Waltz was kept in a 15 x 15 foot cage, according to a local newspaper report. The bear I photographed in my back yard had miles of forest interrupted only by intermittent houses and two small housing developments. The only reason that bear crossed our backyard at all was merely to take a shortcut to the forest fifty yards to the other side.
Nor was that bear the only one I’d seen this year. I am struck by the intermittent and random nature of black bear sightings in our little corner of the world. In some years, I’ve seen four or five bears during my outdoor activities. In other years, I’ve seen none. Yet, the population of Pennsylvania black bears remains at the same level of about 15,000, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
I don’t hunt bears because I think that 15,000 is not a lot of bears for a state with as much forest land as Pennsylvania has. I have a neighbor who does hunt bear, though. It is a family activity for him, conducted with his three sons, all of them inveterate hunters. I once asked Leroy what a bear would do if it was trapped in close quarters.
“Whatever it wants to do,” he answered.
Bear are beautiful, powerful creatures, basically indifferent to human contact except when provoked or cornered. In early spring, I spotted two black bear cubs clawing into an ant-filled log near a swamp. When they saw me and slipped back into a thicket, did I approach for a better photograph? Not.
Sources: 2005 PA Game Commission Report: http://www.pgc.state.pa.us/pgc/cwp/view.asp?Q=166092&A=11
Morning Call: http://www.mcall.com/news/police/all-a7_5bear.7043692oct05,0,3099677.story