About That Thing with Richard Gere and the Gerbil ...

Richard Gere
Several years ago, "they" say, actor Richard Gere was admitted into the emergency room of a Los Angeles hospital with a foreign object lodged in his rectum. Win McNamee / Getty Images News / Getty Images

I don't mean to sound cranky, but it's more than a bit wearisome that the first thing that pops out of some people's mouths when they learn I write about urban legends is, "What about that thing with Richard Gere and the gerbil? Is that true?"

You learn a lot about human nature in this racket. Or should I say, a lot of your worst suspicions about human nature are confirmed, time and time again.

Like, people everywhere are suckers for gossip about sex.

Weird sex. The-weirder-the-better sex. We're obsessed with it, in fact, and that seems to short-circuit our capacity for rational thought.

Gerbilling: a definition

How many here already know what "gerbilling" is? Raise your hands.

Now, how many of you actually believe that anyone really does this sort of thing on a regular basis? Raise your hands.

I see. Shame on you.

For those of you still sitting in the dark, here's a definition: gerbilling (sometimes referred to as gerbil stuffing) is the practice, most often attributed to gay men, of inserting a live rodent into one's rectum (or that of a partner) for erotic pleasure.

And what are the known facts about gerbilling? In reality, it's not a "practice" of any group of people, gay or otherwise. And while the activity, dangerous as it may be (gerbils have claws!), has surely been tried by someone, somewhere, sometime — maybe even more than once — it is not, if I may repeat myself, a common erotic pastime in any known culture or subculture, gay, straight, or otherwise.

The burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise.

Richard Gere and the gerbil

The specific rumor we're here to address goes something like this:

Several years ago, "they" say, Richard Gere was admitted into the emergency room of a Los Angeles hospital with a foreign object lodged in his rectum. Some say Gere was alone when he arrived, others say he was accompanied by a friend (former love interest Cindy Crawford tops the list).

In any case, an x-ray was taken and it was determined that the foreign object was a gerbil (either alive or dead at that point, depending on who tells the story). Mr. Gere was rushed to surgery, where it literally took a team of doctors to extract the unfortunate animal. Some say the gerbil was found to have been shaven and declawed; others claim it had been encased in a special plastic pouch. I've even heard it said that the gerbil was Gere's own beloved pet (appropriately named "Tibet" in this variant). In any event, when the gerbilectomy was done the medical team was sworn to secrecy (unsuccessfully, we must conclude), and Gere went on his merry way, suffering no permanent harm other than to his reputation.

"Is it true?" you ask.

There isn't a shred of evidence that it ever happened. And while Gere himself has neither confirmed nor denied it — indeed, he has rarely spoken of it at all — neither have credible witnesses come forward in the twenty-some-odd years this story has been circulating to offer firsthand testimony to back it up.

"I've never worked harder on a story in my life," National Inquirer reporter Mike Walker told the Palm Beach Post after spending months trying to verify the rumor in 1995.

He came away convinced he'd been chasing an urban legend.

Unknown origin

Richard Gere wasn't the only, nor even the first, American celebrity to be defamed with such allegations. Identical rumors circulated during the 1980s about a Philadelphia TV news anchorman, and later about a certain linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.

How, why, and where did the story come to be attached to Richard Gere? No one knows, exactly. Some commentators point out that shortly after Gere achieved national attention for his appearance in the film Pretty Woman, an anonymous hoaxer forged a fax alert purporting to originate from the ASPCA deriding the actor for what it labeled "gerbil abuse." The accusation bounced from one end of Hollywood to the other, and beyond. But whether this was the legend's actual point of origin remains uncertain.

Why would someone invent such a story? For the same reasons any vicious rumor about a celebrity gets started.

Movie stars are wealthy, powerful people, always in the public eye and always, therefore, the subject of envy. They're walking targets for defamation. There exist in this world people who seek to bolster their own self esteem by sullying other people's reputations — by trying, in essence, to steal a bit of that celebrity's fame and glory for themselves.

So it has been since time immemorial.

Every hallmark of an urban legend

The story bears every hallmark of an urban legend. While the basic narrative has remained consistent through the years, smaller details have varied and mutated, exactly as one would expect in a story told and retold tens of thousands times over.

Like every classic urban legend, the tale of Richard Gere and the gerbil conveys a moral message, perhaps best articulated, if half-facetiously, by Cecil "The Straight Dope" Adams: "Stick to mammals your own size."

Lastly and most poignantly, the presumption that the story is valid always rests on the alleged personal experience of witnesses other than the storyteller, someone who was "there when it happened" but who is always at least two or three acquaintances removed from the person speaking or writing.

Here's a verbatim example from (where else?) the Internet:

A friend of mine's aunt is a nurse at the Los Angeles hospital where Gere was brought into, and confirmed that he was brought in after "playing" with a gerbil. Several nurses on staff went to get his autograph, and were shocked when they discovered his condition.

And another:

Over the Christmas holidays I was talking to my sister about Urban Legends and the Richard Gere gerbeling incident came up. Her friend swears she was there at Cedar Cyni (someone help me with the spelling) in Los Angeles when it happened.

Everyone I've questioned who reported having heard the story offers some variation of the the above: "I know someone who knows someone who was working in that hospital when it happened."

Based on how frequently that claim has been made, I calculate there must have been no fewer than a hundred thousand people on staff at "that hospital" (Cedars Sinai) that night. Surely you know one of them, too.

Update: In 2006, actor Sylvester Stallone publicly stated that he believes Richard Gere blames him personally for starting the rumor. Or was Stallone slyly trying to take credit for it? You be the judge.

Celebrity urban legends:
Did Jennifer Lopez Insure Her Butt?
Was Mr. Rogers a Military Sniper?
Is Lady Gaga a Man?
• Did Miley Cyrus Test Positive for HIV?