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Bear Who Made Herself at Home Removed to Zoo

Two men who rescued her as a cub are upset after she was seized by Oregon wildlife officials.

January 25, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

MERCED, Calif. — Dark-haired with a toothy grin, she used to be a liberated female, footloose and fond of junk food, long showers and wrestling. She favored Dr Pepper, pizza -- and the two Oregon mountain men who took her in.

But the world occupied by the black bear known as Windfall has shrunk to the size of a zoo cage.

Home today is the Applegate Park Zoo in this town 109 miles south of Sacramento, far from the thick forest that once served as a playground for the petite 2-year-old.

She was raised from a cub by a father-and-son duo who consider themselves modern-day incarnations of Grizzly Adams. Oregon wildlife officials got wind of Windfall last summer and seized the bear during a raid on the riverbank home of Rocky and Jonathon Perkett.

Authorities had a bear of a time finding her a new home until the tiny two-acre zoo stepped up last month.

Windfall lulls away the winter days in a 30-by-25-foot chain-link pen complete with a concrete swimming pool and a hammock fashioned from surplus fire hose. She's learned to crack open raw eggs with a flourish Emeril might envy, right atop the concrete-block den with a nice view of the monkey pen.

"She goes up there and the monkeys harass her," said zookeeper Donna McDowell. "She lays her ears back at them."

Windfall's erstwhile adoptive parents, the Perketts, are eager to avoid the pen themselves.

The father-and-son loggers could have faced a year in jail and a fine of more than $6,000. Paul Burgett, Coos County district attorney, hasn't filed charges and is negotiating with their attorney to resolve the matter, probably with a small fine and the courtroom equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

"I think these guys were motivated by feeling of humanity and so forth, but there's just a lot of ignorance there," he said. "It's sad for the bear. It was raised in a nice environment. Now it's in a cage."

How Windfall got here, and how the Perketts found themselves in their predicament, is a saga both distressing and fanciful.

"It's something like Walt Disney would come up with, only this is true," said Rocky Perkett, a timber cutter with a drawl like a rusty chain saw. "It's a sort of fairy tale."

Rocky, 54, and Jonathon, 27, live in a small house in the dense forest of Allegany, 10 miles, as the buzzard flies, northeast of Coos Bay. The home sits on the far shore of the Millicoma River, connected to the world by a Tom Sawyer-style swinging footbridge affixed by cables.

Two years ago the Perketts were out in a stand of wind-fallen forest, harvesting downed trees with chain saws. For nine days they could hear the plaintive wailing of a black bear cub.

Figuring the animal was abandoned, the Perketts rescued the female cub and named her Windfall, after the trees they were slicing up.

Their bouncing ball of black fur grew fast and became part of the family, an offbeat adoptee for the two men. The Perketts insist they never really had possession of the bear. It was more as though she came home for a visit and never left.

Windfall had free rein of their spread and the vast woods behind it, coming and going as she pleased. The Perketts insist the bear was never chained up or locked in a cage. Their ursine guest learned to open the house's doors and often closed them behind her.

"Is there any law against a bear running around your yard?" wonders the father. "The whole two years, as far as I know, it wasn't against the law to have a bear."

Hers was a pampered life. At the kitchen table they shared pizza, Dr Pepper and cookies. She would wade into the river to bathe. Sometimes she'd join Jonathon for a shower, and occasionally she'd sleep in his room. She'd wrestle the men out front, or sit on their laps on the sofa.

"She was like a child," Rocky said. "There's things bears can do you can't believe. It's not like a dog. It goes way beyond that.

"It's pretty intelligent when you can tell a bear, 'I love you, come give Momma a kiss,' and that bear comes right over and gives you a smack on the lips."

Those bucolic days ended last October. Alerted by a wary neighbor, half a dozen state police swarmed across the footbridge. "I heard someone holler and there were six riot shotguns pointed at me," Rocky recalled.

Officers seized the bear without incident. Initially, Rocky Perkett talked of trying to get Windfall back, starting a nonprofit group and building an enclosure for castoff bears from the backwoods. But that notion went nowhere with Oregon wildlife officials.

"The Perketts were flouting the law," said Burgett. "I don't think the state wildlife officials trusted them to be responsible for the animal."

Now the father and son would settle simply for retrieving their photos and videos of Windfall, seized during the raid. Perkett said there's sentimental value attached -- and proof of Windfall's amazing domestic exploits.

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