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.’”
Bradley Gerwig’s relationship with animals is complex. Over the course of his life, they’ve served as sources of income, nutrition, entertainment, and companionship. Some are nuisances; others are worthy prey. Asked if he considers himself an animal lover, he responds with an anecdote about how, as a high school student, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. and milk 40 cows for $20 a week. He’s raised everything from dogs and cats to lemurs and lions, and he’s a skilled hunter, fisher, and trapper. In the past few years, however, Gerwig hasn’t picked up his rifle, partly because of an aging body and partly because of an evolving conscience.
“I don’t have a desire to go out and hunt and kill anymore,” he says, “I’d sooner just take care of an animal.”
It’s a damp December morning, and Gerwig is at his kitchen table, sporting a T-shirt with a dramatic illustration of three bears cast in moonlight. He talks with a gravelly drawl that makes the word “tire” sound like “tar.” His white hair is brushed to the side, and semicircles of dirt line his fingernails. Seated to his right is his wife, Lurline. They rode the bus together in high school but didn’t start dating until their mid-twenties. “I felt sorry for him,” she jokes between sips of Folgers. They married, had some kids, and in the late 1970s built a small zoo on three of their five acres of property. For them, it seemed like a no-brainer. “We like foolin’ with animals, and little kids love seein’ animals,” Gerwig explains.
Opening a zoo in your backyard may sound like an insane, high-liability undertaking, but it’s not that unusual or legally complex. One of the most important steps in the process is obtaining an exhibitor’s license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Doing so requires completing an application and passing an initial inspection to show that you meet the agency’s minimum standards for care and housing. In other words, your fence must be tall enough, and your cages must be locked.
PETA and other animal law experts have for years been sounding the alarm over what they say is a tragically lax permitting process. “The agency automatically renews it once you get it, so it’s really the only hurdle you have to clear,” says Delcianna Winders, vice president and deputy general counsel of captive animal law enforcement at PETA. “It’s a very inexpensive license, and once you have it, it’s pretty much carte blanche. You can violate the law as much and as seriously as you want, and they will still renew your license year after year.”
Of course, not all zoos limit their aspirations to the USDA’s minimum standards. The big, well-known ones, such as the San Diego Zoo and the Bronx Zoo, belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a nonprofit accrediting organization that sets stringent regulations. Many of these institutions have missions of science and conservation at their core and go to great lengths to ensure their animals live in healthy, enriching habitats.
They’re the exceptions. Fewer than 250 zoos worldwide are accredited by the AZA. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 operations in the United States have active USDA exhibitor’s licenses. They range from traveling carnivals to roadside zoos like Gerwig’s, who says he didn’t even know he needed a USDA license until several years after opening up, when an agency inspector showed up one day and told him so. He invested roughly $10,000 to put up new fences and improve his animals’ enclosures and was then legit in the eyes of the federal government.
Arctic foxes, bobcats, coatimundis, lemurs, and, of course, bears followed. “Lions and bears,” Gerwig says, “that’s what the kids wanted to see.”
At no point in time was the zoo meant to be a full-time job or source of income, Gerwig says. Both he and Lurline had steady gigs with the U.S. Postal Service; he also delivered newspapers in the early mornings. The zoo never turned an annual profit, Lurline says, as the costs of feeding dozens of animals always outstripped the modest income generated by admissions. “If you want to call losing money every year a business, then I guess it was a business,” she quips.
Initially, the Gerwigs’ zoo consisted of mostly farm animals — goats, lambs, pheasants, and pigs — and was akin to a petting zoo. There were some picnic benches and a play area for kids in the front yard. Signs on the animals’ pens offered basic information about what they eat and how long they live.
About a year after opening, Gerwig took a few of his animals to a nearby carnival and set up a small display to promote the zoo. There, he says, an acquaintance approached him with a gift: a lion cub stashed in a cardboard box. They plopped the cute ball of tawny fur in Gerwig’s exhibit, and the kids went nuts. It was Gerwig’s first real exposure to the allure of exotic animals, and his zoo would never be the same. The lion, which his kids named Simba despite it being female, ended up becoming a full-time resident in Gerwig’s backyard for the next 18 years.
During that time, Gerwig steadily grew his collection of exotic wildlife. Arctic foxes, bobcats, coatimundis, lemurs, and, of course, bears followed.
“Lions and bears,” Gerwig says, “that’s what the kids wanted to see.”
As burly and powerful as bears may be, they’ve long been subjected to man’s obsessive quest to conquer nature. They’ve been plucked from the wild and forced to perform one way or another since at least medieval times, when princes and kings were stocking their royal menageries with exotic creatures from all over the known world.
Bears were a main attraction in 19th-century zoological gardens — precursors to today’s zoos — where they tended to be kept in aptly named “bear pits,” large holes dug deep in the ground that typically had a tree trunk or wooden pole in the center for the animal to climb. At the London Zoo, circa 1900, a concession stand was set up adjacent to the pit so visitors could lure the animals into climbing the tree for a treat.
“In the bear pit, the animal that had long been associated with fear, the woods, and aristocratic hunting privileges was reduced in a controlled, urban, and bourgeois environment to a comic figure asked to perform for ladies, gentlemen, and, perhaps most important, children,” notes Nigel Rothfels, a historian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo.
Rothfels points out that zoos weren’t the only show in town. Plenty of traveling bear acts toured the country back then, including John “Grizzly” Adams, who was famous for capturing and wrestling wild bears. Others trained the magnificent megafauna to dance, ride bicycles, and wear silly outfits. “There’s something that people find funny about an animal putting on a failed performance in which it’s trying to be human,” Rothfels says. Such performances can take on many forms, including the vicious practice of bear baiting, in which a bear is put in a ring or chained to a tree and forced to fight a pack of attack dogs. “It’s been argued that part of the spectacle is the bear taking on the form of a subhuman-like creature that walks around and defends itself,” he says.
Gerwig reasoned that as long as animals had food, water, and shelter and weren’t being beaten or harassed, then they were well cared for. After all, what else could an animal need — or want?
In the 1970s, when Gerwig opened his zoo, PETA hadn’t yet been founded, and the notion of animal rights was in its infancy. Congress had enacted the Animal Welfare Act only a few years earlier, and even the best-intentioned zoos at the time consisted of little more than barred cages or exhibits with molded rocks and deep moats to contain the animals. The idea that animals are intelligent, emotionally complex creatures wasn’t widely accepted by the scientific community, let alone the general zoo-going public.
It was in this context that Gerwig’s perspective on caring for animals solidified. He reasoned that as long as they had food, water, and shelter and weren’t being beaten or harassed, then they were well cared for. After all, what else could an animal need — or want? “I’ve always said if you can’t take care of them, then you shouldn’t have them,” he says.
Gerwig’s first bear was named Bozo, a black cub that he acquired from a fellow DIY zoo owner sometime in the 1980s. The same species could be found roaming much of the United States, including parts of Maryland, but Bozo was born in captivity, as were almost all of the animals in the Gerwigs’ yard.
“Bozo was so sweet,” Lurline says. She and Gerwig speak of Bozo in the same affectionate tone that most families use when talking about a beloved golden retriever. They fondly recall Bozo sucking down sodas, feasting on ice cream and doughnuts, and climbing to the top of his cage.
Among their more vivid memories of Bozo, however, is the time he got stuck in the tire swing in his cage. “He was going berserk,” Gerwig recalls. The thick ring of rubber was pinched around the girth of the full-grown bear. “I thought he was going to tear the pen down,” Gerwig says. His first attempt at prying the tire off by sticking a metal pole into the cage failed miserably. Running out of time and options, Gerwig called a trusted neighbor; together, they were able to get a hook into the tire and yank it off.
For Gerwig, it’s just one of the many bloopers from a life spent living with dozens of exotic animals. For others, it’s a case study in all that’s wrong with roadside zoos.
After 18 years, Bozo died of what Gerwig presumes was a heart attack. Lurline had gone out in the morning to give him some food, and a few minutes later, he was lying still on the ground. Gerwig walked outside, poked Bozo with a rake handle, and confirmed that he “was dead as a doornail.” Having grown especially fond of Bozo, Gerwig had the bear stuffed and mounted and keeps him on display in his home, alongside a trophy smallmouth bass he caught and several shoulder mounts of deer he’s hunted.
With Bozo dead, Gerwig wanted another bear. So, he says, he wrote a letter to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis informing them of his desire.
While getting a USDA permit to exhibit animals is straightforward, actually getting animals to fill the cages can be more complicated. The USDA regulates all animal exhibitors, but private possession of animals requires no federal licensing. Such oversight typically falls to states and municipalities, and there’s significant variation in the laws across the United States, from total bans to “anything goes,” explains Chris Green, executive director of the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Program.
Twenty states now have comprehensive bans on owning dangerous animals such as bears, lions, and chimps as pets, and 13 states have partial bans. Meanwhile, 14 states allow it but require permits to do so—in part, Green says, to ensure that first responders know what they’re walking into if there’s ever an emergency at the property. That leaves four remaining states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—that have absolutely no laws regulating the private possession of exotic or dangerous wild animals. “There have been bills attempted at the federal level to impose a national ban on owning large cats or primates, but none of those have been successful,” Green says.
The man told Gerwig that the Department of Natural Resources didn’t have any such rules regarding exotic species, so he was free to get a grizzly bear for all he cared
Gerwig never had to worry much about the laws. He opened the zoo before Maryland had any strict regulations. Over time, the state tightened its control on captive animals, but Gerwig was grandfathered in, so it didn’t really matter — until he went looking for Bozo’s replacement. The Department of Natural Resources told him he wasn’t allowed to get another black bear because the state had instituted laws against keeping native wildlife as pets. It wasn’t all bad news, though. The man told Gerwig that the agency didn’t have any such rules regarding exotic species, so he was free to get a grizzly bear for all he cared — so long as whatever species Gerwig decided on couldn’t be found naturally roaming the woods of Maryland.
Gerwig chewed over his options. “I definitely didn’t want no grizzly,” he says. He put his feelers out to some fellow zoo owners and collectors and eventually linked up with a private breeder on the East Coast who had two Asiatic black bear cubs, Lea and Lily. They were sisters and absolutely adorable, with glossy black coats and a splotch of white fur across their chests, a telltale marking of the species. In the wild, Asiatics can be found in parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, and throughout much of Asia. They’re classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which notes that one of the biggest threats facing the species is a thriving black market for their gallbladders and bile for use in traditional medicines.
The captive-bred cubs Gerwig was eyeing were $1,000 a pop. But he and the breeder worked out a different deal: Gerwig would take the two cubs free of charge and raise them until they hit breeding age. At that point, the breeder would take them back and bring Gerwig two more cubs. It seemed like a win-win situation. Cubs were easier to handle, didn’t cost as much to feed, and were a bigger draw among little kids. Gerwig and the breeder, whom he declined to name, shook on the deal, and that was that.
After a few years, the breeder came back to Gerwig, as promised. He took Lea to sell her to a zoo in Texas and said he’d soon come back for Lily. Gerwig didn’t think much of it. Days passed, then weeks, and then months. Gerwig gave the breeder a call.
“I told him his other bear was still here, and he said, ‘That’s your bear now,’” Gerwig recalls. “So that’s how we got Lily.”
Gerwig was never interested in training Lily to do stunts or risking life and limb to get her into a tutu and tiara. If she batted the tire swing around or flopped on the ground when the zoo had visitors, great. If she was simply pooping or pacing around her cage, so be it.
The one thing Lily did seem to consistently enjoy was eating, and Gerwig and Lurline made sure she never went hungry. Twice a day, they’d serve her a one-gallon can of dry dog food, and they’d toss in apples, watermelons, pears, doughnuts, cookies, sodas, and other sweets to keep her satiated. They say they were careful to never feed her meat.
The more Lily ate, the bigger she got. Because her cage was only large enough to take a few steps in any direction, she wasn’t burning calories like Asiatic black bears in the wild, which regularly trek miles over rugged terrain. On top of that, Lily had never hibernated, a critical part of a bear’s life cycle that’s closely tied to their metabolism and ability to regulate weight.
When PETA’s Brittany Peet first laid eyes on Lily, she was horrified by the size of Lily’s belly and convinced that the animal was gravely ill. “We initially thought she had a giant tumor on her stomach,” Peet says. “And because her stomach constantly dragged on the ground, she was covered in her own urine and waste.”
Peet estimates there are at least 1,000 captive bears in the United States and says PETA devotes significant time and resources to monitoring them and trying to relocate them to appropriate sanctuaries. In recent years, the organization has helped get more than 75 bears out of situations similar to Lily’s. Sometimes, Peet says, the owner is eager to let the animal go, because they can no longer safely care for it and just want it off their hands. Other times, they want cash for the animal. And then there are those who won’t even hear her out.
She didn’t know what to expect from Gerwig, but Peet figured it was best to keep the fight for Lily out of the public eye, at least initially. She hoped that if she could get through to Gerwig one on one, they could reach an agreement. After all, Peet had connections at a top-notch sanctuary in Colorado where Lily would have acres to roam, plenty of food, good medical care, and an underground den where she’d finally be able to hibernate.
Peet made a trip to the zoo to see the conditions for herself and feel out Gerwig. Unsurprisingly, Gerwig didn’t take kindly to a PETA employee showing up on his property. Hoping to cut the tension, Peet floated the idea of a financial arrangement in which they’d pay Gerwig to give up Lily and surrender his right to ever have a bear again. Gerwig told her to get off his property. “About 20 minutes later, he called me and was much nicer and apologetic,” she says. “I think he said he wanted $5,000 in exchange for giving up his right to have a bear. We talked a couple more times after that, but then he just stopped returning our calls,” she says.
That’s when PETA tightened the screws. The organization called the USDA and state regulators to report safety and animal welfare violations, knowing the agencies had to respond in person to such reports. Peet hoped getting regulators out to Gerwig’s property would annoy him enough that he’d cave and give up Lily.
It didn’t. Finally, in September 2016, PETA sent out its action alert on Facebook and over email. The message went far and wide. Gerwig’s phone rang, and rang, and rang, and his mailbox filled up with letters.
Approximately two weeks after the campaign started, Peet got an unexpected call from a man named Pat Craig, who heads up the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. Craig said that he had just received a call from Gerwig with clear instructions: Come get the bear.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg spans 10,000 acres and is home to nearly 500 animals, including lions, tigers, jaguars, bobcats, mountain lions, and bears, all of which were previously confined in horrendous circumstances. Craig, who opened the sanctuary in 1980, can no longer count how many bears he’s rescued. Over the course of his career, he’s seen it all, including a pair of grizzlies that were trained to ride full-grown horses. The horses were marred from the grizzlies’ claws, he says, and the bears had a severe addiction to nicotine — their reward for pulling off the stunt. But even he was astonished by the size of Lily. Craig ballparks that she weighed 700 pounds when he arrived at Gerwig’s. “I’ve never seen a bear that fat,” he says.
When Craig and his team picked up Lily, they were doing so as a neutral third party. They weren’t the ones that whipped up the social media frenzy and egged on the callers; they were simply there to take Lily to a bigger, better home. Still, he says, Gerwig was miffed at his arrival. Craig did his best to make him feel comfortable with the decision. Even though Craig was appalled by the conditions in which Lily lived, it was clear to him that Gerwig felt a fair amount of affection for Lily. He assured them that she was going to be well fed and well cared for — and promised that Gerwig could visit her whenever he wanted.
Diplomatic as Craig was, Gerwig remained pissed off the entire time Lily was being loaded into the transport vehicle. Gerwig says he was all for Lily getting more space and a better life, but however he cut it, there was no denying that PETA and its mob of activists had won. The last thing he wanted now was a prolonged goodbye with an animal he had raised for the better part of a decade. He said farewell to his bear, and with that, Craig and his team drove 1,600 miles back to Colorado, stopping only for gas.
Gerwig bristles at the implication that he was ever cruel to his animals. “You can’t be nasty to animals, because they’ll remember.”
On a crisp, golden afternoon last November, Lily lumbered around her new habitat in the eastern plains of Colorado, snacking on apples, grapes, and blueberry mini-muffins. She looked like a bit of a slob, with blades of dead grass stuck in her fur and rounded ears that pointed in different directions. Despite being similar in size and build to a VW Bug, with broad shoulders and a low profile, Lily exhibited a surprising amount of grace as she sucked up the marble-sized grapes one by one from the dirt.
It took a few months for Lily to fully acclimate to her new home and its many amenities — structures to climb, water tanks to plod around in, and no strangers poking their arms through the fence. “Considering where she came from, it can be pretty terrifying to put her out in a big space like this,” says Kent Drotar, one of the sanctuary’s employees. “But she’s made huge gains. She gets out and explores.”
Every few seconds, Lily gently snorted, glanced up at Drotar with her sullen eyes to make sure her stash of snacks wasn’t in jeopardy, and returned to eating. Though she’s still surrounded by chain-link fence, this is the closest thing to a life in the wild Lily will ever know. Out here, she shares approximately three acres with a pair of Asiatic black bears that were raised together in captivity. They went into hibernation for the winter just a few days prior, and Lily would soon follow, as she has done every other winter since arriving.
Each spring, she has emerged thinner and healthier. She’s shed at least 200 pounds since arriving — and will likely weigh even less when she steps out of her den this year. Her belly still sags and swings, and the skin is wrinkled and creased, similar to the stomachs of people who’ve undergone gastric bypass surgery. It’s an indelible reminder of her past life and proof of how far she’s come.
Given her new station in life, Lily could live well past 30. The sanctuary may not be natural, but it’s certainly not stressful. She can wander at her leisure and sleep the winters away, and she will never have to compete for a bite of food.
As the afternoon faded, Lily moseyed over to a favorite corner of her compound and sat upright, leaning back against a wooden beam. From a distance, she looked like a beer-bellied couch potato soaking in the view of the vast plains.
“Don’t you kind of just want to put a beer in her paw?” Drotar joked.
Gerwig’s troubles didn’t end with Lily’s departure. There were still plenty of other exotic animals — lemurs, coatimundis, cavies, and six arctic foxes — on his property, and the animal rights activists weren’t going to let them stay. Calls kept coming, bullhorn-blaring protestors lined the narrow road in front of Gerwig’s home, and last year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund announced that it was suing Gerwig for violating the federal Endangered Species Act and local animal cruelty laws.
Gerwig bristles at the implication that he was ever cruel to his animals. “You can’t be nasty to animals, because they’ll remember,” he says. He’s quick to concede that his backyard zoo was far from ideal, especially for an animal of Lily’s size. But as far as he’s concerned, that’s a long ways off from animal cruelty. He never thrashed his animals with sticks. He never starved them. He never pitted them against one another. As evidence of how well he cared for his animals, Gerwig points to the fact that Simba and Bozo lived for nearly 20 years.
It’s a viewpoint blind to the intellectual and emotional needs and wants of animals. “It’s not impressive to simply keep a bear alive. That’s not the standard we use,” Peet says. “The standard we use is does the bear have any quality of life? And Lily didn’t — not for 10 years.”
Gerwig wanted to fight the lawsuit and spoke with an attorney who said he could fight, but he’d go broke doing so. Even if there was an argument to be made, PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund had the resources to tie him up in court for years and the willpower to make the remainder of his life a living hell. After that, Gerwig begrudgingly waved the white flag. He agreed to give up the exotic animals in his possession so they could be transported to appropriate sanctuaries. He no longer has his USDA exhibitor’s license. Deer Haven Mini Zoo is effectively closed to visitors.
A sense of decay now permeates Gerwig’s yard. A stuffed animal swings from a rope in a barren cage that once housed lemurs. The play area for kids is worn and faded from the elements, and most but not all of the animals are gone. Up front, along the road, are a few goats and an overweight miniature horse that Gerwig jokingly calls a “real butterball” as he tosses it an apple. In the back, a peacock paces back and forth in an enclosure, and an emu mills aimlessly around its pen. There are some deer, sheep, geese, and doves, all of which activists have demanded he turn over.
Gerwig grumbles about PETA as he circles Lily’s abandoned cage, looking at where his bear used to be. He’s glad to know that she’s living the good life out in Colorado, but he’s still bitter that he caved to PETA’s demands. As for giving up his remaining animals, Gerwig insists that he’s done dealing with activists. “I’m not giving them no more,” he says.
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