Oregon bear, a former housepet, adjusts to zoo

MEDFORD — No longer terrified of the nearby raccoons nor the target of apple-throwing monkeys, Windfall the black bear has settled well at a California zoo five years after she was raised as a daughter by two self-described "mountain men" in Coos County.

She's plump, happy, parasite-free and still off the Dr. Pepper and pizza she ate for 18 months while living, sleeping and even showering with Jonathan and Rocky Perkett in the woods east of Coos Bay.

And for the first time in her bizarre life, Windfall has a friend of her own ilk.

For the past two years, Windfall has shared her pen at the Applegate Park Zoo in Merced, Calif., with "Missy," a much less ruined bruin in this sanctuary for orphaned or damaged critters.

"At first, she was scared to death of Missy," says Donna McDowell, the park's head zookeeper. "She'd never been around another bear before. Ever. Now they sleep together, play together. They're as happy as can be."

She also remains a life-changing inspiration to the Perketts.

After police seized Windfall from them in 2005, the father-son duo pledged to set up a bear rehabilitation center to care for other damaged bears and perhaps one day get Windfall back.

They set up a nonprofit corporation, Windfall Inc., applied for rehab licenses, and struggled mightily to raise the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to realize their dream.

Yet this inspired legacy of Windfall is as close as the Perketts can stand to get to Windfall, whom they haven't seen since the day state troopers hauled her away in a dog crate. "We figured that visiting her would be too big a heartbreak, so we never did," says Rocky Perkett, 59.

"Being used to having her free and us running around in the woods with her, to see her in a cage would be rough," he says.

The Perketts and their unusual relationship with their apex predator was a story that wrinkled brows worldwide as readers on both sides of the Atlantic digested this saga from the backwoods of Oregon.

The Perketts said they found the infant and apparently orphaned bear while logging wind-fallen timber in Coos County in early 2004. They took it home and "loved her like a daughter," sharing their meals, shower and occasionally letting her sleep in Jonathan Perkett's bed.

The pair acknowledged housing the bear even blow-drying her hair after showers but insisted she had the run of the house and was not illegally confined or caged there. Rocky Perkett, however, said he did not know that simply taking the bear out of the woods violated Oregon law.

Oregon State Police troopers seized Windfall, and word of the bear and her former housemates circled the globe as police struggled to figure out what to do with her.

She was deemed too imprinted on humans for wild release, and the Perketts could not take possession of her because they didn't have a permit or a state-approved facility to house her.

The bear eventually landed in the Merced zoo, where she initially lived alone in a 30-by-25-foot concrete pen with two interior dens and some play structures, all encircled with cyclone fencing.

First, zookeepers had to rid her of internal parasites such as roundworm and tapeworm, and also eliminate most of the bear mites that damaged her skin and hair. She initially was terrified of the raccoons and monkeys in nearby exhibits, McDowell says.

But the monkeys' apple-throwing eventually abated, and she became a zoo favorite because she was so friendly and engaging to visitors, McDowell says.

"She didn't even know she was a bear," McDowell says.

McDowell says she searched for just the right companion for Windfall, and she came in 2008.

Missy was orphaned and barely weighed 15 pounds when California wildlife officials caught her raiding homes for food, McDowell says. Game wardens nursed her back to health and 75 pounds before she came to the zoo and was placed in Windfall's cage.

Instantly, Windfall played second fiddle to Missy, McDowell says.

"Missy started stealing Windfall's food and pushing her around," McDowell says. "Finally, Windfall got tired of it."

After a brief spat one day, the pair have been the best of friends, McDowell says. They often snooze in their hammock together, play in their pool and sleep together to the delight of zoo-goers still captivated by Windfall's story.

"People still remember her," McDowell says. "People will still ask if she's the bear that came from Oregon."

The Perketts now live in Myrtle Point, still work as loggers and still dream of their rehab center. And they pine for their time sharing their cabin and their lives with Windfall.

"We'd like someday to get her back," Rocky Perkett says. "One day it could happen. But at least we know she's happy and well-cared for. That's the most important thing."

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