For nine years, Kelly Ann Walz kept the black bear she called "Teddy" as a pet, raising it from cubhood at her hilltop menagerie where she also cared for a mountain lion and tiger.
For nine years, Kelly Ann Walz kept the black bear she called “Teddy” as a pet, raising it from cubhood at her hilltop menagerie where she also cared for a mountain lion and tiger.
On Sunday night, she went into Teddy’s 15-by-15-foot steel and concrete cage, throwing a shovelful of dog food to one side to distract the bear while she cleaned the other side. “She’s done it 1,000 times,” said her friend and neighbor, Scott Castone. “And on 1,001, something happened.”
The 350-pound bear turned on Walz and attacked. Walz’s two young children and Castone’s children saw the attack and summoned help. Castone shot and killed the bear.
Walz, 37, was pronounced dead at the scene.
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“She loved the animals and took care of them,” Castone said Monday as he prepared to tell his own children that Walz had died.
Pennsylvania Game Commission officials said Walz’s husband, Michael Walz, had longstanding permits to keep, sell and display exotic animals. The permits expired in June 2008, but a lapsed permit is considered a summary violation – similar to a traffic ticket – and would not have resulted in the removal of the animals, said commission spokesman Jerry Feaser.
He said the most recent state inspection in 2007 did not turn up any problems, nor were any discovered when game commission investigators returned after Sunday night’s attack.
At one time, the Walzes kept an African lion, cougar, jaguar, tiger, bear, leopard and two servals on the wooded property in Ross Township, a rural area about 30 miles northeast of Allentown in northeastern Pennsylvania. As of Monday, only the mountain lion and tiger remained, according to Feaser. Castone said the rest had died of old age.
Castone, whose house is about a football field away from the menagerie, said there’s never been a problem in the decade he has lived there. He said that the animals were safely locked in their pens and that he had even fed popcorn to the bear on occasion. Castone said the family kept the animals as pets and did not sell them, although Michael Walz’s permit allowed him to do so.
The bear was atop Kelly Ann Walz when Castone arrived with a handgun. It had clambered off and was about to leave its cage when Castone, a 38-year-old schoolteacher, opened fire.
“He got off of her to come out to me,” Castone told The Associated Press. “I did what anyone would do. It was pretty much self-defense.”
Tim Conway, an information and education supervisor with the game commission, said owners of wild animals usually have a two-section cage, allowing them to isolate the animal behind a locked gate while they clean the other part.
“Why this woman chose to go in the same area that the bear was in is beyond me. It’s a fatal mistake,” he said. “These things are not tame animals; they’re wild animals.”
There’s been a menagerie on the property for at least 20 years, according to neighbor Marshall Eldridge, 56, who toured it before the Walzes took over in the 1990s. Eldridge used to worry about the animals escaping when his now-grown children were still living at home, but he said the cages were sturdy.
“They were good people. They just had a strange hobby,” Eldridge said.
He said the lion’s roars carried to the next ridge, where Eldridge delighted in spooking out-of-town guests hearing it for the first time.
Michael Walz is listed in state corporation records as the president of World of Reptiles Inc.
A sign at the bottom of the Walzes’ steep drive warns curiosity seekers to keep out: “Enter only if specifically invited.” A man who answered the phone at a listing for Michael Walz said the family did not want to comment.
There are more than 100 wildlife permits statewide, a number that has dropped significantly in recent years as game commission regulations have become more stringent, Feaser said. Now, new applicants must have at least two years’ experience handling wild animals and obtain a letter of approval from their municipality before they can receive a permit. But the stricter rules do not apply to existing permit-holders like Walz.
(This version CORRECTS the distance to Allentown to 30 miles instead of 20.)