June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

Hard by Highway 190, framed by the Sierra Nevada, lies the town of Springville, Calif., where Peggy Myrick’s front yard has been transformed into a magical maze of bright blue and green huts, a little yellow barn and a frog pond. Her modest mobile home is bordered by a patio made of concrete squares, each bearing a playful drawing signed with style by a proud artist. One stands out in its simplicity: “Gary 1957-1971.”

Gary, Myrick’s only child and “a good, smart boy,” she says, was accidentally electrocuted when he was 14. His death sent his devastated mother into a drinking problem that lasted years. But in 1981, Myrick found redemption in the form of a miniature horse she bought for $250 and named Freddy Stallion. With his help she discovered that her town was filled with children who needed comforting as much as she did. Today, Myrick, 67, runs a petting zoo with some 40 animals, including ponies, sheep, pygmy goats and a love-struck bull who recently tried to make a break for it with his gal the cow. “You know, if you’re drowning you grab onto something and hold on for dear life,” neighbor Milly Gann, 76, says of her friend’s menagerie. Myrick echoes the thought. “I don’t do it for the kids,” she says. “I do it for myself.”

Her actions prove otherwise. Although Myrick bought Freddy because, she says simply, “I was lonely,” she became Springville’s Pied Piper, trailed by ecstatic children—many from broken homes—as she led Freddy on daily constitutionals through town. Myrick remembers one overjoyed girl who had tears streaming down her face as she rode Freddy for the first time. “She had been with me all day, and I didn’t have a clue it was her birthday,” Myrick says. “These kids were so used to not having anything. She was so happy to be riding a pony on her 12th birthday.”

The dozen children who visit Myrick regularly come not just to fuss over the animals but to revel in her quiet affection. “You can talk to Peggy about anything,” says Swan Hughes, 12. “She listens with her heart.”

Myrick knows these kids. After all, she was one of them. She grew up in Springville, one of seven children of Ward Hance, a bartender, and Marion, a homemaker, both now deceased. “We slept three to a bed, and I barely finished high school,” she says. In 1955, when she was 22, she married Sandy Myrick, who drove a bread truck. Two years later, Gary was born. As a 14-year-old, fascinated by electronic gadgets, he was playing with a 40-ft.-long TV antenna in the family’s backyard on the fateful day. “I told him to put it down and come inside,” recalls Myrick, who still has difficulty speaking of Gary. “He lost his balance, fell down, and the pole hit a power line.”

An hour after the severely brain-damaged Gary was taken to a nearby hospital, Myrick told the doctors to allow her son to die. “The guilt was terrible, and I drank a lot,” she says. The tragedy strained her marriage, and she and Sandy split soon after.

Myrick bought a Honda 750 motorcycle and drifted around the state, working as a cook and as a maid in a mountain lodge. In 1979 she returned to Springville, where she cared for her father, who died of emphysema the following year.

Soon after, she bought her first pony and stopped drinking. “Starting the zoo made me broke,” she says. “But if you’re broke, you don’t have money to buy beer.” In the mid-’80s, Sandy started coming around again, bringing bales of hay and helping out with bills. “He took to calling it his ranch,” says Myrick, pleased that they were friends again. “He’d send out his friends to look at a horse, and they’d knock on my door, looking for Sandy’s ranch. I’d say, ‘You’re looking at it.’ ” Sandy died in 1997, and Myrick paid for his funeral by selling 18 of her 20 cows.

She is still just scraping by, living on her $750 monthly Social Security check. The kids pitch in to build pens and repair fences, but big animals have big appetites, and it costs $200 each month to feed them. Myrick has virtually emptied her home of possessions for the weekly yard sales she and the kids hold. “I make from $3.50 to $100,” she says. “Usually it’s closer to $3.50, but every little bit helps.” The community has been generous—the Lion’s Club built the yellow barn, and folks have made donations. Not that she asks. “Whenever she needed something, somebody would find out and come through,” says Joanie McGregor, 65, adding that the zoo has been a fixture in the lives of her family members for 20 years. “I don’t think she spends a dime on herself.”

But it usually falls to Myrick alone to feed the animals and clean their cages. And she can no longer keep up. In February 1999 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. The chemotherapy treatments made her weak, radiation resulted in blisters so painful she couldn’t sit, and the medical bills left her deeply in debt. But rather than sell the animals to help pay her expenses, Myrick stopped the treatments. The children and the animals, she insists, are the best medicine.

As the kids troop over after school, Myrick sometimes hands them carrots to feed the animals. “I always ask them to say the magic word, and most know it’s ‘please,’ ” she says. “The ones who are too shy don’t have to say it if they give me a hug. It makes me feel so good.” For their part the children see her goodness in small, unspoken acts. “The palm tree over the pond?” says Swan Hughes, pointing. “Peggy hasn’t trimmed it for years because the bats like to roost on the palms.”

Christina Cheakalos

Lorenzo Benet in Springville

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