Betty White is a self-described “zoo nut.” At age 90, she balances her still-thriving acting career with advocacy work for zoos—particularly the Los Angeles Zoo, where she serves as a trustee. “Wherever I travel, I try to steal time to check out whatever zoo is within reach,” she writes, in her latest book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.
Last night, here in Washington, D.C., White regaled an audience at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium with stories of the many animal friends she has had over the years. The Smithsonian Associates, a division of the institution that offers lectures, film screenings, live performances and workshops, hosted the sold-out event.
Today, White made a stop, as one might expect, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. When I interviewed White last week in anticipation of her trip, she was excited for this side excursion. “I have been to the National Zoo a couple of times, but this time I get a backstage tour, and I am really thrilled,” she said.
White started her morning at the Giant Panda House, where she met 13-year-old Mei Xiang. She fed Mei a pear, and the panda showed White how she extends her arm through the cage to have her blood routinely drawn. Next, White visited the Bird House, where she hugged a kiwi. “We have a very unusual kiwi here, our ambassador kiwi,” says Kathy Brader, the zoo’s kiwi expert. “Kiwi are not known to be warm and fuzzy creatures. In fact, they are usually quite aggressive. But Manaia is just this really laid back kind of puppy dog.” White fed six-year-old Manaia some “kiwi loaf,” a mixture of beef, mixed vegetables, chopped up fruit and bird pellets, and the bird climbed up into her lap. “I have only seen him do that with two other people, besides me,” says Brader. Not only did she respond to the bird himself, adds Brader, but White wanted to hear about the zoo’s work with the birds. The zookeeper gave the actress a little lesson in kiwi reproduction. “They actually lay one of the largest eggs per body weight,” Brader later explained to me. “In human terms, it is like a 100-pound woman having a 15 to 20-pound baby.”
White then watched the Western lowland gorillas, including three-year-old Kibibi, in their habitat. She held a tiny lemur leaf frog, admired some Japanese giant salamanders and visited with the elephants. (White had heard about Shanthi, the zoo’s harmonica-playing elephant.) She was even introduced to “Rose,” the zoo’s Cuban crocodile, named after her “Golden Girls” character, Rose Nylund. “You could tell that this was someone who really generally cares about zoos,” says Brader. After her tour, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., White signed copies of her books for the public.
In Betty & Friends, the actress credits her love for zoos to her parents, who were also animal lovers. ”It was from them I learned that a visit to the zoo was like traveling to a whole new country inhabited by a variety of wondrous creatures I could never see anywhere else in quite the same way,” she writes. “They taught me not to rush from one exhibit to the next but to spend time watching one group until I began to really see the animals and observe their interactions.”