Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Lori Golden
A member of the Television Hall of Fame and six-time Emmy Award winner for her roles which have included The Happy Homemaker on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, this busy actress has been a part of television since 1949. Her love of animals, however, started long before that.
Growing Up With AnimalsWhile some may think this animal lover must have been raised on a farm, nothing could be farther from the truth, having arrived in California when she was just a year and a half. “I don’t think California was even a state at the time my family came out here from Oak Park, Illinois,” Betty explains. “I’m afraid I’m a city girl.”
Betty’s love for animals can be traced directly back to her parents. “When I was brought home from the hospital, my mother said we had an orange marmalade cat, Toby. If Toby hadn’t approved of the new baby I would have been sent right back to the hospital.”
Growing up as an only child, Betty says “I was the happiest only child in captivity.” But she had lots of four-footed siblings.
She learned to love all creatures during family summer vacations in the High Sierras. And there were always pets around her house when she was a kid. “We had a lot of Pekes. We loved Pekes because they’re such stalwart little guys and they’re so bright. So we had Pekes, and Chow Chows, and jack of all trades- mixed breeds. We had a German Shepherd, Dolly… and Cocker Spaniels. I was a lucky little girl. I had parents who’d bring something home and say, “hey, Betty, he followed us home. Can we keep it?”
“During the depression,” Betty continues, “my dad made radios to earn extra money because times were bad all over. The problem was nobody else had any money to buy radios either. So he’d trade them for dogs. Well, the dogs ate and the radios didn’t, so it was not the best business deal he ever made. But it was more or less to give the dogs better homes then they had. At one point I think the number got up to 26, very briefly, but we placed them all."
Finding homes for dogs and cats is just one of the ways that Betty White helps animals. She actively supports a number of organizations, “only if I can do some good there. I don’t want to be just a name on a piece of stationary.”
As to how she chooses which groups to support, Betty says, “it’s the toughest call in the world because so many of them are worthy. I certainly try to be hands on with any organization I get involved with.”
One of her longest associations has been with the spcaLA, which she’s been involved with since the 60’s. And talk about being “hands on!” On January 21st Betty will be hosting the third annual 2001 Friends For Life Pet Telethon on UPN Channel 13 from 4pm to 8pm. Every year the telecast raises much of the needed funds for spcaLA’s various programs and services. The telethon will feature animals for adoption, before and after cruelty cases, and celebrities.
“We adopt a lot of animals out,” Betty explains. “Of course, you can’t call up and adopt an animal and then come and get the animal immediately. We have to check you out, too. First the animal is neutered and gets his shots, and then you come back in three or four days and pick up your new baby.”
“The telethon is also to let people know what we’re about. That it’s a private organization. It has nothing to do with the city shelters and it has nothing to do with other humane societies. It’s a Los Angeles based Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They do a lot of work with problem youngsters. And they have an outreach program where many times they’ll put youngsters to work, giving them a whole different view of life and how precious it is.”
Madeline Bernstein, President of spcaLA says, “having Betty White host our previous Friends For Life Pet Telethonshas been an honor. Betty White's animal welfare advocacy is known throughout the world. She's a strong voice for animals and has been a friend of spcaLA for over 40 years. Her involvement with the telethon has made it the success it is today."
In addition to spcaLA, Betty has been a trustee of The Morris Animal Foundation for 31 years, is their President Emeritus and serves on their Executive Committee, going to Denver six times a year for meetings. “It’s a health organization that funds studies for the specific health problems of dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. I’m so proud of this organization. We helped develop the Feline Leukemia vaccine… the Parvo Virus vaccine… and the Potomac Horse Fever vaccine. The list goes on and on.”
She also supports the Wildlife Waystation and is a Board Member of Actors and Others for Animals. “I wish I could do more for them physically,” Betty admits, “but I do show up when they need me for their board meetings.” (And also for their events, which is where this reporter met up with Betty in October.)
So, Is Betty White A Dog Person Or A Cat Person?
“I’m everything with a leg on each corner,” she exclaims.
“I’ve been on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association for 30 years. 2 years ago we finally got our own zoo commission… so we don’t have to go through Parks and Rec and be behind all the golf courses and highways. At that point I had to resign from the board because Mayor Riordan made me Vice President of the Zoo Commission. I spend more time at the zoo than any human being I’m sure, except the keepers.”
Betty doesn’t have a favorite zoo animal saying, “I love them all. Bruno, our big old male orangutan and I have sort of an on-going relationship. I’ll say “hi, Bruno,” (we have a beautiful new Red Ape Rainforest, and he’ll be way over in the other corner) and he’ll look up and say, is it worth the trip… yeah… I guess it is. And he’ll come all the way over. I’m down right by the fence. And he sticks his old lips through the fence so I can pet his nose. He’s a sweetheart. And I love them all. Gita, our elephant. You name it.”
The author of four books, Betty is so enthralled with the zoo keepers and the personal relationships they have with their animals that she is currently busy writing her fifth book,These Are Keepers. Although the book will primarily be about the LA Zoo as far as the individuals are concerned, with each story “I can talk about other keepers that I’ve met around the world. I went to the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark … and I didn’t speak a word of Danish. You didn’t need a common language. It’s a different language that animals and people speak.”
Her Own AnimalsThe animals that share Betty’s life today are indicative of her activism. “Right now I have 2 dogs and a cat who’s convinced he’s a dog, so I might as well say I have 3 dogs.
I have my Kitta- a Golden Retriever that was socialized in Alaska to be a guide dog and then didn’t go in to formal training because his hips didn’t quite measure up to what was needed. He’s fine. He’s 6 this month.”
Kitta is also very vocal as evidenced by the barking interruptions during our interview. “That’s the 10:00 Labrador going by. I don’t know where he learns language like that,” Betty apologizes with a laugh.
“Then I have my little rescue from the spcaLA. A beautiful little Shitzu, Panda. She was a cruelty case. She spent the first 6 months of her life in a cage at the spcaLA because she was impounded as evidence in the trial. A pet store sold this sick little dog. Fortunately the woman who bought it took it back and they said, oh, we’ll take care of that. And she went back to check on it the next day and found this same sick little dog in the window for sale. So she blew the whistle and turned them in to the spcaLA. Panda closed a pet shop all by herself! She did a good job. Panda is 10.”
“And then there’s Bob Cat, (people who don’t like cats must call him Mr. Cat) my beautiful Himalayan who was found by a woman who couldn’t keep him. She goes to the same beauty shop that I do, so she brought him in and said, Betty, what will I do? I took him to my vet and got him checked all over and said I’d find a home for him. On the way home from the vet, of course, I bought the litter box and all of the supplies. And I said, now I’m going get to work and find him a home. Well, I took him right straight home and he hasn’t left here since. I’ve had him for 6 years, although he’s probably around 10 or 11.”
“I guess the most animals I’ve ever had at one time is four. You run out of hands if you have more noses than that. I like to have animals that I can really relate to… not just to have a bunch of animals that are running around.”
Of course Betty’s animals are all spayed. “Oh, my gosh,” she exclaims, “I wouldn’t have them any other way. I wish I could have some of my neighbors spayed or neutered! The way our population is growing, I think that’s our next step.”
“I’m The Luckiest Creature In the World”
Betty White is an actress, an author, and an animal activist, but what gives her the most joy? “My animal work. Allen (her late husband, Allen Ludden) used to say that television was my hobby; animals were my real life. I just enjoy them more than anything else. But I have to work for a living, and I enjoy that, too. It pays for the stuff that I support with the animals. I’m doing the two things that I enjoy most, and you can’t ask for better than that.”
Of her six Emmy Awards and her successful television career Betty says, “God, I’m the luckiest creature in the world. I loved all the shows I did. Mary Tyler Moore was so heavenly, and they’re still my closest friends. But I love the character of Rose Nylund (from The Golden Girls.) I loved her positiveness. She didn’t let any negativity get in the way.”
Her most favorite experience, however, was a show she created, wrote, produced, and hosted in 1970 and 71, syndicated around the country, called The Pet Set. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I’d get one of my celebrity friends to come on and bring her animal, and then I’d write the rest of the show around that celebrity’s interest in animals.”
Because of her animals, Betty’s limit for going out of town is two nights. “It’s not easy. My problem is I just enjoy them more than I do other things. I’ve turned down shows and I’ve turned down a Broadway Play because this is where my heart is.”
Something else Betty turned down was the role of the mother in the hit film As Good As It Gets. “I turned it down because of little Jill, the adorable little dog, being thrown down the garbage chute (by Oscar winner Jack Nicholson.) Jim Brooks, (one of the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) was kind enough to offer me the role, but I called him and told him that I just couldn’t. He said, ‘but the dog is fine. The dog is safe. The dog is the star of the movie.’ I said, I know that, but there are a lot of kooks out there. They see that and say, oh, how convenient, there’s a dog that barks down the hall that bothers me. I know what I’ll do. And I said they don’t all have happy endings like that. He understood.”
More recently, however, Betty had a memorable role in David E. Kelley’s off-beat film Lake Placid. One reviewer wrote: “Betty plays a “smut-mouthed” old lady who sweet talks the 30 ft crocodile, fond of chomping on human heads in a Maine lake to “come and get it.”
About that role Betty heartily laughs, “I loved it. We had a wonderful time. It’s become like a cult. I go through airports and now they don’t say, oh gee, we watch The Golden Girls. Every second person says oh, I loved Lake Placid. Well, I always apologize for the language. I expected so much static for that role. I got one negative letter. And not anything about the language. He said, ‘how can you pretend to like animals so much, and then feed that cow to that crocodile?’ I didn’t want to tell him it was an animatronic crocodile and an animatronic cow. David E. Kelley even had the cow walk through the background at the end of the movie, so you knew the cow was all right. You just can’t explain things like that to somebody. Of course, then everybody wants you to play that kind of role. But I got an Emmy nomination for playing a crazy lady in David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal. He wrote that crazy lady for me. So I’ve had to turn those types of roles down now, playing against the sweet Betty White type… otherwise that becomes a cliché. It’s fun to mix and match. Oh, god, I’m the luckiest!”
We are the lucky ones who benefit by having Betty White around to entertain us and share her love and knowledge and compassion for animals. When I asked if I could mention that she’ll be celebrating her 79th birthday on January 17th, she replied, “everybody else does, why shouldn’t you? Thanks to Entertainment Tonight, that’s been an open secret forever. But it’s easier than lying about it and trying to figure out the mathematics. I don’t know where the breaking point is. You wish that people didn’t know that you’ve been around so long. But there’s a point where you begin to brag about it, and I can’t find where that breaking point took place.”
Betty White has spent a lifetime of communicating with people and with animals. And that, she says, is the most important thing you can do with your animals. “Any animals. Pay attention. Don’t be embarrassed because you talk to your animals. The more you pay attention and the more you communicate, the more you get back until you DO develop a language with each other. It’s a fascinating development that happens. You can’t turn them on and off like a switch. Just deal them into the family. And one more thing. It’s an old, tired thing, but people must spay and neuter their pets!”
(You can enjoy watching Betty White for four hours on January 21st, when she hosts the 2001 Friends For Life Pet Telethon on UPN Channel 13 from 4pm to 8pm. And her latest comedy series, Ladies’ Man, (with Alfred Molina and Sharon Lawrence) is expected to be back on CBS sometime between March and May.)
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