Sad to see the media glamorize backyard breeders of tigers who have led to the massive over population of big cats in the U.S.
Age tames Barbara Gregory’s wild life as an exotic animal rehabilitator, but her legend endures
Newberry Township woman might be York County’s least-known famous person. But she likes it that way. Her animals gave her all she needed.
By FRANK BODANI
Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA – The .22 rifle lies across a dog kennel in her kitchen.It’s a warning, a symbol. It’s a way of life for the small, gray-haired woman who is about as gruff, independent and intimidating as they come.
Barbara Gregory is 80 and one of those legends whose work has gone unnoticed by most.
Maybe that’s the way it is when you give your life to animals because they nourish with loyalty and love the way people rarely can.
So the anonymity didn’t bother her four decades ago after she brought home her first lion or even now, as she buzzes around the kitchen in her 200-year-old stone house in Newberry Township, cutting vegetables and fruit for her tiny flying squirrels.
the epicenter of it all.It’s where she offers freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to guests.
It’s where she takes another phone call to accept yet another abandoned deer fawn to bottle feed.
And it’s here where you begin to understand how a woman with so much love to give is also so tough, tough beyond words.
She once cut up a dead horse with a kitchen knife because it was free meat for her big cats.
This is a strange combination of forces at work.
The rifle is just behind the kitchen table. Her loaded handgun is somewhere within reach.
No one, the self-described “hard ass” said, comes to her door unannounced.
Her smile vanishes.
And then the mood lifts and she goes back to telling the fantastic stories of her life, about her beloved animals that she finally had to send away.
Everything began while she was racing hydroplanes on New Jersey waters 60 years ago.
Barbara met Sam Gregory, whose York family made a fortune in the men’s clothing business.
She raced, fished and crabbed. He had a boat. They clicked.
Eventually they settled on 65 acres in East Berlin and raised two children.
She schmoozed and played golf at the Country Club of York. She showed dogs.
She joked about feeding the kids’ ponies while wearing high-heels and a mink stole. “I mean, I was a lady of leisure,” she said with a breezy laugh.The golf was good. But the lifestyle didn’t fit like it should, the money never really mattered.
Rather, she had been fascinated by exotic animals since she was a girl, though her parents never allowed her so much as a cat or a dog. She was restless, still the “wild child” looking for adventures and to unearth her dream.
It was after her 16-year marriage to Gregory dissolved that she shifted the course of her life.
It was her time.
She was born in August, a Leo by the zodiac, and so “Why shouldn’t I own a lion?”
She answered an ad in the New York Times, purchased a male cub
and drove it back to a vast spread in East Prospect, where she had moved after her divorce. She had him neutered, not knowing that neutered male lions will never grow a mane. It was the first of countless self-taught lessons in what became her calling.She named her lion Rommel.
And so the stories began . . .
Like the time she stopped her Chevy station wagon along Route 30 in East York to settle the fidgety beast riding along.
She got him out of the car, but he wouldn’t get back in.
The 600-pound cat sat stubbornly along the road.
Finally, she flagged down help, and Rommel obliged.
This was only the start.
He went for walks on a leash. He slept with her son, like a house cat. Only once did he ever scare her,
when he pinned her down in the backyard during a photo shoot — though he only wanted to lick her face.She knows she was lucky to have never gotten hurt living with one big cat after another and so much more.
“We both made the mistake of looking at it like it was a pet,” said her son, also Sam Gregory. “We didn’t know anything about wild animals at the time. It was not a very smart thing to do.”
But she learned quickly, probably better than most anyone could. She pored over countless animal books, visited zoos, picked the brains of experts, even hunters and trappers. This was a learn-as-you-go style, especially in the 1960s.
Her personality always demanded more.
She borrowed $1,500 to send for a tiger in Florida. She named
him Tony and cared for him for 20 years until he died of old age, just like Rommel.Her success in breeding the cats, curing their illnesses, uncovering the nuances of each species was empowering, euphoric even. She began to believe that raising exotic animals was only part of it all, that she also could save them in a sense, give them a decency of life they never would receive otherwise in captivity.
She earned a reputation in the industry and was regularly called upon to take in animals that became too big for owners to handle, that were malnourished from neglect and that were about to be put down because a small zoo was closing.
Thirty years ago, she moved them all from East Prospect to the perfectly constructed dozen acres in the woods north of York where she lives now.
Neighbors knew what she did and put up a fuss at first. Veterinarians and game commission officers and other wildlife rehabilitators knew, too, and that was about it.
“I’d put her in the same category as Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler,” said Terry Mattive, who has run T&D Cats of the World in Snyder County for 25 years.
He credits Gregory for mentoring him, for all of it. “She has the green thumb. She’s that Dr. Doolittle.”
They met more than 20 years ago when Mattive was just getting started in the animal business and Gregory happened upon his property.
“This was like a mystery woman. I just didn’t know what to make of this,” Mattive said. “She is forward, very bold, authoritative. She’s a tough, callous woman.”
Eventually, she entrusted him with a tiger cub, and the two became good friends.
His sanctuary now has more than 300 animals, including 70 big cats.
Sit around the kitchen table and page through her scrapbooks.
There are pictures of just about any animal you can imagine: camels, coyotes, arctic foxes, great horned owls and even elephants lounging by the pond in her backyard.
She cared for all of them at one point, releasing every native species she could back into the wild. She kept some animals for life and shifted most to zoos and wildlife parks.
She raised every kind of wild cat from an endangered snow leopard to a lynx to a mountain lion she named Mariah, who could enter her house through a window and a second-floor cage Gregory built herself.
She raised a grizzly bear and a pair of wallabies and a wolf and who-knows-what-else.
“You name it, I’ve had it.”
At some point, she got into river otters, and that took off like nothing before. She became arguably the state’s leading expert on them.
The otter on the Pennsylvania license plate? That’s a sketch of Emmett, one of hers.
When the water tanks in their cages froze on winter nights, she trudged out alone to break it up with a crowbar.
Most of the babies, regardless of species, spent their first months in her house.
They roamed that kitchen.
Which is where everything begins, even now . . .
A Baltimore oriole nest hangs from her rack of pots and pans. Two hornets nests are fixed to a wall.
It’s her control center, where she prepares food for her remaining wildlife rescues, where she keeps her dogs, where she answers her phone and still advises people where to take injured birds and what not to do with baby bunnies.
She walks through that kitchen on her way to playing golf three mornings a week.
And, once upon a time, this was her exit to a slice of fame experienced by few others.
She rubbed elbows with the legends in the animal business through three decades. She worked shows with Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and sold cats to Gunther Gebel Williams of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
She filmed big-city commercials with leopards and appeared with her otters and other animals on Regis and Kathie Lee, Conan O’Brien, the “Today” show, David Letterman.
Circus acts called her when they were in town, looking for a suitable layover spot for their animals.
She was tough, for sure, but also quite compelling. She was like one of those beauties from a James Bond movie; the petite brunette in go-go boots and short skirts leading tigers on leashes.
She even accompanied federal agents on illegal animal stings.
It all became an intoxicating mix. The show biz adrenaline blending with the drive to be an animal savior, blending with the satisfaction of giving a mother’s unconditional love over and again.
She arranged to rescue three young orphaned
elephants from Africa and eventually brought them to her property.
She created a media stir by flying with one of her tigers to the University of Florida so it could undergo cataract surgery.
Every day, it seemed, was an adventure.
She was either hunting down a runaway yak or tracking down her vagabond turkey vulture or driving a bunch of alligators in her van from Ohio.
She ran a pet store in Camp Hill for a decade.
She even opened a zoo on her property for a couple of years before an onslaught of after-hours intruders drove her to shut it down.
She fashioned giant corn cribs into otter sanctuaries. She cared for nearly 20 at a time, the final permanent members of her revolving ark.
She loved the otters like no others and still has pictures of them everywhere in her house, even though a mating pair were the only animals to ever attack and hurt her seriously.
Though she was about 65 at the time, and they were “chomping on my legs,” she shook them off, outran them to her house, squeezed in the back door and then got a ride to the hospital — where she refused stitches. Wildlife bites, she said, have to heal from the inside out.
“It doesn’t hurt, don’t worry about it,” she told the nurses. “Put stuff on it and wrap it up and get me out of here.”
But even the otters have been gone for nearly a decade. Funds and donations began drying up, but mostly it
was her age that forced change: She simply wasn’t able to break the otters’ ice in the middle of winter anymore.
So she sold her big cages to make herself stop, and she found homes for the otters.
“If you can’t care for them properly, you don’t keep them.”
It seemed like it would be a sad ending.
Instead, Gregory began re-inventing herself yet again.
She was at the table in the dimly lit kitchen recently, talking and peeling back more life layers, when the phone rang.
She answered quickly.
“You want to bring it? Yeah, I’ll take care of it, you know me.”
A game commission officer had another motherless fawn, tiny as a toy. He drove from Hanover in an approaching storm to drop it off.
“I’m happy. Another baby to take care of,” she said after hanging up. “You should see me at the (York County) senior games. I tell them, ‘Gotta leave now, got fawns to feed.'”
Some animals are still there, it’s just that things are so different now.
The long driveway is no longer lined with cages of her fairy-tale beasts. Only those empty corn cribs remain.
Her son, now 53, no longer can help with the rescues or the wildlife shows or even do the farrier job he so loved. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two decades ago and is in a wheelchair.
The disease even took the life of Gregory’s other child, daughter Debra, nine years ago.
No, everything is different and often, more difficult.
The grass gets cut around the historic farmhouse, but the grounds are overgrown and the huge pond is clogged with algae and trees are growing out of the in-ground swimming pool in the back.
There’s just too much to do and not enough money to keep it the way it was.
Gregory pushes on as best she can.
She still raises at least a half-dozen fawns each spring and summer, keeping them in a log outbuilding. She nurses those baby squirrels on her front porch. She takes in injured chipmunks and always seems to have a turtle on the mend.
Plus, she has her golf and her countless senior game activities. Even her golf partners didn’t know of her past until she showed them her animal albums one day, and they probably still don’t truly understand the depth of the toughness that defines her.
When one of her corgis backed a big groundhog into a corner a year or so ago, she ended the standoff with firepower.
To feed her big cats, she once lined up a deal with a livestock owner to take dead calves off his hands. She threw the carcasses into the back of her van on regular trips. Then she’d heave them whole into the cat cages.
It only took her four days to recover from a stroke, by the way.
At least some have noticed.
“It wasn’t an easy life. You got to be tough,” Mattive said. “Look at the Old West. Most of them lived into their 30s, didn’t eat good. She would have fit in perfect. She’s like the sheriff in Dodge City. She’s not going to back down to anyone.”
Always, she seemed a woman who just preferred to give most of her love to the animals.
“If an otter didn’t want to eat, she’d stay up all night and do whatever she had to,” her son said. “I knew as babies if we didn’t eat she’d throw us back in the crib.”
He was joking, kind of.
“I’m sure she believes that’s why she was put on earth, to take care of animals.”
She seems to have found peace now in her final chapters, an acceptance, at least.
The animals still inspire her, and most people still exasperate her.
It didn’t matter that she did a man’s work in a man’s time because “when you prove yourself, you’re accepted. I think I proved myself in every case and
everything I did.”
She also knows that many probably don’t agree with how she raised exotics in her home, keeping them in cages on her property. She understands that.
And, yet, the situation must be placed into context. Forty years ago, wild animals were sold and traded from secretive warehouses to anyone who had the money. Gregory not only showered hers with profound care, she succeeded where most failed, such as successfully breeding otters in captivity.
“I admire her. This is her life’s work,” said Dr. Valerie Miller of the East York Veterinarian Center. She’s worked with Gregory for two decades.
“There aren’t a lot of pats on the back for this. It’s a life of public service.”
And the future isn’t exactly clear, either. No one seems destined to carry on her work, not with such little pay, unrelenting hours and scarce recognition.
Maybe her grandson, who works just down the road from her, will buy these beloved 12 acres when she’s gone. Maybe her son will be well enough to sell them.
She wants to be cremated when she dies, her ashes sprinkled on the grounds so she never has to leave.
For now, she’s happy enough, truly happy, she says.
She cracks about how, if her property is ever developed, she can only imagine the surprise when they start digging and unearth the bones of bears and lions.
Her story still reads on, and the charm of it is that despite all of her cutting, rough edges, even she can be entranced.
Catch her right, and that exterior will melt a bit, revealing a heart, big and open and devout.
Walk with her in front of her home in the gloaming, just before nightfall, underneath the sprawling sugar maple that was alive before the roads were paved and the river was dammed.
It’s as if she soaks in everything in that moment, the fantastic and the heartbreaking, wishing silently that those adventures could have continued.
She looks beyond the woods and into the sky.
It is clear and quiet.
“I would hear my lions roar at night,” she said, a smile beginning to form before she paused.
“And I miss that.”
Ex-cop finds unlikely mentor
Terry Mattive is a retired state police trooper who raises lions and tigers.
He’s the tough type, so to speak.
But the animal lady, barely 5 feet tall, is probably tougher.
Tougher to figure out, for sure.
Mattive has been operating T&D’s Cats of the World in Snyder County for 25 years. His sanctuary has grown to more than 300 animals, including dozens of big cats of all types.
He might have the largest collection of big cats in Pennsylvania, one of the largest in the country.
And he credits his success to his mentor, Barbara Gregory, the longtime wildlife rehabilitator and exotic animal owner in Newberry Township.
Go back to the first time they met.
On a day two decades ago, Gregory suddenly materialized, unannounced, in Mattive’s driveway, which is beyond rural Route 104 in the small town of Penns Creek — in the middle of practically nowhere.
She pulled up in her van, handed him a card with her name and phone number on it and told him to call.
“I might be able to help you.”
And she promptly drove off.
That was it.
“I actually had that card in my hand for weeks,” Mattive said. “I’d look at it and put it away. Each time I looked at it, it was, ‘Who is this person?’ It wasn’t a warm greeting. Barbara’s Barbara, as everybody knows. But each time I went to throw the card away, I couldn’t let it out of my hand, it wouldn’t leave.”
Finally, he called and drove 75 minutes to her home.
As he pulled onto her lane, a strange but beautiful parade of animals appeared before his eyes: Cages and pens with lions and tigers, bobcats and bears, lined both sides of the long driveway.
Gregory emerged from her house to ask him if he wanted a fox.
He agreed, she handed him the animal in a crate, said good-bye and vanished back inside.
Time passed, the fox lived, and her trust grew. Mattive listened and learned what to feed a baby crow and how to make a fawn suckle from a bottle and how to comfort beavers and river otters.
Then, she called him.
“Can you be down here in an hour or so?”
Mattive was taken aback.
“I don’t jump that fast for anybody. I’m supposed to be the one putting fear into someone,” the former state trooper said with a laugh. “And here she is bossing me around.”
But drive down he did. Gregory had a tiger cub for him.
He had never seen one.
He took it and drove home — and figured it all out.
Soon enough, she called him regularly with leads on animals on the verge of becoming homeless or being euthanized.
They worked animal shows together.
And his lifelong goal blossomed.
“It was like I died and went to heaven,” he said.
Wayward vultures and alligators in the van
There are too many animal tales to tell.
The adventures seem limitless for Barbara Gregory since she got her first lion more than 40 years ago.
But give her some time.
And then she begins to spin the details, story by story . . .
Like the one about the turkey vulture she raised from down feathers.
Gregory, a wildlife rehabilitator in Newberry Township, received a call from a distressed neighbor about a vulture perched ominously in her yard.
She pulled a dead rat out of her freezer and jumped in her van. She found her vulture in a tree, threw the rat on the ground as bait and simply scooped up the giant bird when it pounced.
She flung it under her arm, as best she could, got back in her van and drove off.
“I think that woman thought I was insane,” she said, laughing at the tale.
The vulture stayed around for a quite a while, charging into anyone who tried to approach Gregory.
A guard vulture?
“I think he thought I was his mate,” Gregory said.
So many stories . . .
Like another one her son told.
Sam Gregory, 53, remembers when he still lived at home and he looked out of his bedroom window into the driveway.
His mother’s seemingly empty van was parked, but the brake lights were on.
He went out to investigate.
He looked in the van to see at least 10 full-grown alligators lounging around. One had worked itself over a barrier and into the front and was sprawled across the brake pedal.
“It really didn’t surprise me,” he said of the scene.
This was just life with Gregory.
And the alligators?
She had transported them from Ohio and some were on their way to a zoo at Dorney Park near Allentown.
The rest went to a magician in Las Vegas.
Barbara Gregory’s phone still rings nonstop at times, people looking to drop off every kind of animal possible to the longtime wildlife rehabilitator.
Gregory will be 81 in August. She no longer cares for most species anymore.
But she will still take in the following: river otters, beaver, deer, flying squirrels, chipmunks, turtles and vultures.
She cannot care for species that might carry rabies, such as raccoons, skunks, fox, coyote, groundhogs or bats.
She also advises the public to handle abandoned or injured wildlife as little as possible, since the stress caused by inexperienced care can kill the animals.
Gregory will direct the public to the appropriate wildlife rehabilitator in the area. Rehabilitators usually do not pick up animals.
Rehabilitators and rescues in the area include the following:
— East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue, 320 Zoo Road, Fairfield, Pa. (9 miles southwest of Gettysburg), 642-5229.eastcoast rescue.org
— Bird Refuge of York County, 1453 First Ave., York, 843-4914. birdrefuge.org. Contact: Teresa Deckard. For song birds and water fowl.
— Mitzi Eaton, 757-4420. For birds of prey, like hawks and owls.