By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on January 27, 2015
To locals, she was known as the “Bear Lady,” famous for her decades-long devotion to feeding the black bears that lived in the woods surrounding her isolated Tyrrell County home.
Tall, lithe and feisty, Kay Grayson became a one-woman force against trespassing hunters and a fierce protector of the bears and their cubs who visited her regularly.
Every day for years, she would call to the bears in sing-song, prompting the animals to emerge from the shadows as she poured piles of dog food for them. Some of her favorite bears would even eat out of her hand.
On Monday, Grayson’s body was found on a logging road several hundred yards from her trailer. She was 67.
“We found her in the woods,” said Tyrrell County Sheriff Darryl Liverman. “There was evidence that she had been pulled into the woods by a bear.”
Liverman said that Grayson may have been dead as long as two or more weeks, based on the last time anyone had seen her. There was no indication of foul play, he said.
The county coroner has requested assistance from the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Greenville, the sheriff said.
Grayson was well known to the sheriff’s office, Liverman said, mainly for her worries about the bears. During his first stint as sheriff, from 1990 to 1997, he said, she called his office “an awful lot” to report gunshots or complain about hunting dogs and poachers on her vast property about 12 miles east of Columbia.
“I think a lot of times, she just heard shots,” he said, adding that it was likely legal shooting practice. “She did have some problems with hunters, but it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was.”
With increased state enforcement efforts and stricter laws, the situation with bear hunting started improving. When Liverman was appointed and later re-elected in 2006 as sheriff, he said, the calls were still coming in up to 20 a year. By last year, there were only five or fewer calls.
“I think actually the hunters decided to leave her alone,” he said.
Since the early 1990s, Grayson lived by choice in a modest trailer on what was originally about 1,000 acres of land off U.S. 64 on the edge of the tiny community of Alligator. Until recent years, when she acquired a pay-as-you go cell phone, she did not have a phone, but made her calls from pay phones or borrowed phones. She had no running water, no electricity and no air conditioning. She relied on a kerosene heater when it got cold, and used an outside toilet.
When she needed money, she would sell a piece of land. If she needed to go to Columbia or Manteo, she would walk to the end of her long driveway and a wait on the edge of U.S. 64 for a friend to pick her up.
It was a big change from her former life, which included some high living and working as a professional dancer. But she rarely talked about much else other than her bears and wildlife.
“She definitely loved nature, especially bears,” said Sgt. Mark Cagle of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Cagle, who had known Grayson since the late 1990s, said he had last spoken to her about a month ago, when she called to say that she had “the quietest bear season ever.”
Over the years, Cagle said, he had often warned her of the dangers of feeding the bears, which she acknowledged. He also told her that she was breaking the law.
“She was definitely very cautious with them and understood their power and respected them,” Cagle said, adding that she said she had stopped feeding them a few years ago.
Cagle said that Grayson at one time had told him she left her doors open, and let animals — sometimes even the bears — come in and out of her place, a practice he strongly discouraged. But she later informed him that she had stopped allowing the animals inside.
Although he never heard of the bears being aggressive toward Grayson, Cagle said it would be possible that she had a “bad encounter” with one that resulted in her death. But it would also not be unusual for an animal to have been scavenging and come upon her after she had died.
Cagle said that despite her eccentric ways, Grayson was an intelligent, interesting woman.
“She was different,” he said. “A lot of people say she was a fanatic.
“I would say that was true to some extent — but she wasn’t crazy. She was more passionate about the bears than fanatical.”
The sheriff’s office said that arrangements for Grayson will be determined after the investigation is completed. Liverman said that he is not aware of any surviving family.