Most of us know Betty White as the actress from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls” or as the resurgent nonagenarian who starred in The Proposal with Sandra Bullock, hosted “Saturday Night Live” after a massive Facebook campaign and took a lead role in the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.”
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But what about Betty White the animal lover?
For nearly 40 years, White has served as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. She is a devoted advocate of the work that zoos do, educating the public and helping to conserve endangered species in the wild. Her latest book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, is a polished scrapbook of her favorite animals, with photographs and anecdotes.
The Smithsonian Associates is hosting an evening with White this Thursday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. On Friday, she has made plans to tour the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
What is your earliest memory of feeling some sort of kinship toward an animal?
Oh, it is so embedded in me. The first time must have happened long before my memory started. Both my mother and father were tremendous animal lovers. They imbued in me the fact that, to me, there isn’t an animal on the planet that I don’t find fascinating and want to learn more about.
Before wanting to be an actress, it was your dream to be either a forest ranger or a zookeeper.
Right. A couple of years ago, the Forest Service made me an honorary forest ranger. Back when I started, girls couldn’t be forest rangers. But now they made me an honorary one, made it very official, and I was deeply honored. As far as a zookeeper, I have been such a zoo nut all my life that I am practically a zookeeper!
That’s right. At the Los Angeles Zoo, you have spent a fair amount of time behind the scenes. What has been the most special moment to witness?
There have been quite a few in all of those years, but I think probably watching a baby camel try to stand up. I spent two hours watching while this baby, newly born, tried to get up. He would get one leg up and then he would get a second leg up. He would try the third leg, and the first two would fall down. He really had to work at it. I stood there and watched the whole time.
Just about the time he finally got all four legs under him, and you know how spraddle-legged they are when they first stand, not his mother, but it was like Aunt Maude, one of the adult camels, came over. As if to say, “Oh, what a beautiful baby,” she touched him with her nose and splat! Down he went. He had to start all over again.
Betty, what animal has the best sense of humor?
Not so much the great apes, but monkeys. Elephants have a lovely sense of humor too. The Los Angeles Zoo had three tiger cubs that I followed for their whole first year. There is a pool in their habitat. They stalk each other. One would come very quietly and all of a sudden push his brother into the water. That was funny. That would make me laugh every time.
You are clearly a huge advocate of zoos. But some people aren’t. What do you say to them?
So many people have a closed mind on zoos. They think no animal should be in captivity, they should all be in the wild in their own habitat. Well, of course, that is a myth. Humans have already taken their habitat; many species have no wild habitat anymore. So what the zoos do, that some of the “zoophobes” don’t understand, is work not only with the captive animals but also with the dwindling populations in the wild. What they learn from the captive animals they can apply to the populations in the wild. In many cases, species are still around that would not be without zoos.
Your passion for animal welfare, on at least one occasion, has caused you to turn down a script and an acting role. Can you tell me about this?
It was the Jim Brooks’ movie As Good As It Gets. They had this puppy dog, this adorable puppy, that at one point they dropped down a laundry chute. It landed on a pile of laundry in the story line, and I turned down the role. There are a lot of people in apartments who would think that was a solution. It would either be funny to do that or it would be a solution to a barking neighbor or something like that. It certainly wouldn’t always have a happy ending. So I said as long as that scene was in the film, I wouldn’t do it.
In terms of fan mail, you make it a priority to personally respond to fans that write about the loss of a pet. Why is that? And what advice do you give them?
Because I know how it hurts. If they write to me about that loss, I can’t not respond, to give them a little word of comfort or sympathy or let them know I certainly understand. I answer pet loss mail and I answer mail from widows. They know I lost my beloved husband [game show host Allen Ludden, who died in 1981] and new widows write to me and say, how do you get through it? What do I do? I can’t answer all the mail, of course, but those two subjects always get a response.
Dues for your official fan club, Bets’ Pets, go toward animal charities. Has there ever been a huge gesture made by an avid fan of yours, with your interest in animals in mind?
Oh, many times. They will adopt an animal at the zoo or something like that, at great price, because they know it supports my interest and supports that animal species. It is the loveliest gift they can give. The crew on “Hot in Cleveland” adopted a baby orangutan at the Los Angeles Zoo in my name. They named it Elka, which is my character name on the series.