In the fall of 2016, Bradley Gerwig’s phone began to ring and ring. Morning, noon, and night, callers from around the world bombarded the 77-year-old’s landline at his modest ranch home in Keymar, Maryland, a blip of rolling farmland an hour northwest of Baltimore. Most callers were polite but firm as they implored Gerwig to turn over custody of Lily, an Asiatic black bear with floppy ears and sleepy eyes that Gerwig had reared in his backyard zoo since she was a cub. Lily was now approximately 10 years old and, by all measures, a giant.
The flood of calls was prompted by PETA, which first got wind of Lily when a visitor to Gerwig’s zoo reached out to the animal rights group to report an obese bear that seemed like it was having a hard time breathing. The tipster passed along photos of Lily sitting in the circular wire cage where she’d spent just about every day of her life. It looked bare-bones and filthy: A car tire hung from a rope in the center, globs of scat dotted the ground, and a metal pipe served as the bear’s den, even though she had never once hibernated like her wild counterparts.
PETA dug into U.S. Department of Agriculture reports and found that Gerwig’s zoo, while licensed, had been cited for numerous infractions throughout its history. Just that year, a USDA inspection report noted that part of the fencing around Lily’s cage was held together by twine. The same report added that a person was seen sticking their arm and a stick into Lily’s cage while the inspector was watching. “I knew that we needed to prioritize Lily and do everything we could to get her out immediately,” says Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement at PETA.
In September of that year, PETA blasted out an “action alert” on its website and social media platforms. “Lily’s confined to a tiny slab of concrete, seen here surrounded by her own feces, & has an abdominal mass the size of three footballs. Help her now,” PETA wrote on Facebook, with a link that contained Gerwig’s phone number and home address. Lily’s plight proved a powerful motivator, and the post quickly reached more than 148,000 people. The most impassioned followers picked up their phones, printed out letters, and pleaded Lily’s case.
Gerwig wanted to tell Lily’s newfound advocates to go screw, and at times he ripped into callers. “I said words I didn’t even know existed,” he says.
“We disconnected the phone,” Gerwig says. As PETA ramped up the pressure, he and his wife of 50 years, Lurline, vacillated between frustration and angst. They had operated Deer Haven Mini Zoo for decades with hardly any public pushback. Nearby schools made field trips to it, the American Legion donated money to it, and the local press had published several fawning human-interest stories about it. He and Lurline knew they didn’t offer their animals the same quality of life as the nation’s marquee zoos, but they kept them fed and provided what they considered to be satisfactory care — all while keeping admission prices low: $4.50 per child, $6 for adults, and teachers got in free. Gerwig wanted to tell Lily’s newfound advocates to go screw, and at times he ripped into callers. “I said words I didn’t even know existed,” he says.
But there was no avoiding the stress that came with an onslaught of strangers begging for his bear’s freedom. After hundreds of calls and hundreds of letters, Gerwig and Lurline felt like they didn’t have any good options. While offloading Lily may have been a good idea, they didn’t want to feel bullied into doing so, especially by PETA.
“We were already discussing downsizing and stopping the business because of our age,” says Lurline, who is 75. “Then PETA started in, and we thought, ‘Well, we’re not just going to give up like that.’”