The Birds and the Beasts

Illustration by Gary Hovland 

Bernice Spelman was keeping cool animals before keeping cool animals was cool. It started when she and her family lived in Chesapeake, and by 1984, she had amassed such a menagerie that they moved it all to a farm in Drakes Branch, in Charlotte County. On the human side, there were Bernice and her partner Leroy Swartzel, their adult daughter Rebecca and her husband, David Velez. 

It all began, reported the Charlotte Gazette, with foxes. (Doesn’t it always?) The foxes were about to be “pelted,” so Bernice bought them. “My mother was not going to let an animal suffer,” Rebecca told the paper. When the article came out, she was keeping some 200 animals, but she was doing more than just preventing their suffering. She was treating them like royalty. A cow lived for a while on the back porch. A horse was allowed inside the house, even though at one time it ate the mail, including some bills. 

And Arnold Ziffel, move over! On her green acres, Bernice had her own eccentric porker: A pig that didn’t weigh even a pound at birth. She named it Little Bit and nursed it with a bottle until it filled out into a healthy piglet. It slept with its owners, even after it had reached a whopping 400 pounds. “My father would just move over in the bed,” Rebecca told the paper. Little Bit was especially fond of a warm shower and, wrapped in a towel, would kick back for some TV, like his more celebrated distant cousin Arnold. 

And these were just the usual suspects. Let’s not forget the boa constrictor, the coatimundis, the African spiny mice, and the degus—the cutest little Chilean rodents you’ve ever seen. The Komondors, dogs whose coats look like rag mops. The emus. An alligator from Mexico. “There were other pigs, several varieties of rabbits, ducks, pheasants, swans, geese and turkeys,” says Bernice today. “None of it was for meat. They were all pets.” School groups would visit, and they exhibited some of their furry, feathered and scaly friends in the South Central Fair in nearby Chase City.

The family’s caring extended to humans too, and they fostered 30 or more kids, some from Puerto Rico and others from as far away as Denmark. “I always had an extra brother or sister,” Rebecca told the paper. “All my mother ever asked was that they go to school or to their jobs.” Bernice once took 13 kids to the drive-in.  

Bernice and Leroy married in 1992, and a few years later, à la Jack Hanna, he and another of the couple’s daughters, Roberta, took a delegation to New York City, where they appeared on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. Bernice couldn’t make the trek because she was having breathing problems, she explains: it turned out she was allergic to birds. Ba-buck! So some purging of the flock was in order. Some of the animals eventually died. They sold some, and placed others with other families. With this abbreviated responsibility, Bernice and Leroy had little choice but to become truck drivers, and this new pursuit took them all over the U.S. and much of Canada. They retired about five years ago. The Swartzels and the Velezes still live on the farm, but with just two Maltese dogs and a cat. 

No doubt they miss Little Bit, but they must be sleeping better.

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