No, of course it isn't true. 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 in 1995 after spending months trying to verify the rumor. He came away convinced he had been chasing an urban legend.
Richard Gere wasn't the only — nor, indeed, even the first — American celebrity to be defamed with such allegations. Similar rumors circulated about a Philadelphia TV news anchorman named Jerry Penacoli during the 1980s, and later about a certain linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.
How, why, and where did the story attach itself to Richard Gere? No one can say for sure. 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 called "gerbil abuse." The accusation was circulated from one end of Hollywood to the other, and beyond. But whether this was the legend's actual point of origin is 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. It has been so since time immemorial.
Every hallmark of an urban legend
The story bears every hallmark of an urban legend. While the basic narrative has stayed 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.
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.
Most 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, there must have been a hundred thousand people on duty at "that hospital" (Cedars Sinai) that fateful night.
But enough of this baloney. If you haven't had your fill of rodents and rectums, do visit the gerbilling department of the AFU & Urban Legends Archive, where a crack team of folklore experts labors to dislodge the truth for you. And if you care to bone up on the sorts of things all kinds of folks really do put in their hineys for fun, go (if you dare) to the Rectal Foreign Bodies home page and have a look around. It's an eye-opener.
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.