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.
Because it simply didn't happen. It's folklore.
"I've never worked harder on a story in my life," said National Inquirer writer Mike Walker after spending months trying to verify it, in vain. He came away convinced, he confided to the Palm Beach Post in 1995, that he had been chasing an urban legend.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Richard Gere wasn't the only — nor, indeed, even the first — American celebrity defamed with such allegations. During the early 1980s, the same rumors circulated about a Philadelphia TV news anchorman named Jerry Penacoli, as well as a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and various other local luminaries in big cities across America. It was Gere's misfortune to be the most famous among them.
How, why, and where did this sordid legend attach itself to Richard Gere? No one knows the specifics. 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 Gere 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 retold a thousand times over. It found its way into the mainstream of popular culture through the usual means, a long chain of person-to-person communications by word of mouth, fax, and email. And, like all classic urban, the tale conveys an implicit moral message, articulated half-facetiously by Cecil Adams as: "Stick to mammals your own size." Lastly and most poignantly, the claim that the Gere story is authentic always rests on the alleged personal experience of someone who "was there when it happened," but who is always at least two or three acquaintances removed from the person actually telling the story: "a friend of a friend."
Here is a verbatim example culled from Internet discussion groups:
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 same claim: "I know someone who knows someone who was working in that hospital when it happened."
Based on how often that claim has been made, there must have been a hundred thousand people on duty at Cedars Sinai Hospital that 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.