“My preoccupation with animals is an open secret,” wrote Betty White in her 2011 book “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.” The legendary star, who died this week at age 99, was known for more than just her TV and film work. She was a self proclaimed “zoo nut” who spent her life advocating for animal welfare.
White’s parents were animal lovers and she grew up going to zoos regularly. As her profile as an actor and TV personality grew, it became natural for her to use her platform to spotlight that passion.
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In 1971, White created and hosted “The Pet Set,” a syndicated series that featured White interviewing celebrity guests including Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Doris Day, and their pets and animal trainer Ralph Helfer. She produced the series herself along with her husband, longtime “Password” host Allen Ludden. “The Pet Set” ran for 39 half-hour episodes, and was made available on digital and DVD in 2021. “If I haven’t told you already, I will now. ‘The Pet Set’ is one of my favorite shows,” White said at the time of the re-release. “I’m thrilled it’s going to be seen again after all these years.”
White’s most prominent work as an animal advocate was achieved through her longtime relationship with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the nonprofit attached to Los Angeles Zoo. She got involved when the zoo first opened in 1966 and became a trustee in 1974. The same year, she produced “Backstage at the Zoo,” a television special featuring Moore, Jimmy Stewart, Greg Morris and Amanda Blake in an effort to help residents understand the work being done at the zoo. White later joined the inaugural board of zoo commissioners in 1997, serving for eight years before being named chair of the board in 2010. When “Betty & Friends” was published in 2011, all proceeds benefitted GLAZA and the L.A. Zoo, and in 2012, she celebrated her 90th birthday at the zoo.
“We are incredibly saddened to hear about Betty’s passing this morning and want to offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends as we collectively mourn the loss of a true legend, on and off the screen,” said Tom Jacobson, GLAZA president. “Her work with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association spans more than five decades, and we are grateful for her enduring friendship, lifelong advocacy for animals and tireless dedication to supporting our mission.”
White was also a trustee of Morris Animal Foundation from 1971 to 2013. She additionally served as their canine division vice president from 1973 to 1982 and board president from 1982 to 1985. In 2010, she provided the donation that established the Betty White Wildlife Fund in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. White also sponsored over 30 animal health studies on behalf of the organization.
“It is hard to imagine a world without Betty in it,” said Tiffany Grunert, president and CEO of Morris Animal Foundation. “She was a tremendous animal advocate who tirelessly supported the work of Morris Animal Foundation to improve the health of animals globally. All of us at the foundation are mourning the loss of this amazing woman. We will miss her wit, her intelligence and, most of all, her love of animals and commitment to advancing their health. She was a true inspiration to our staff, her fellow trustees and all of our supporters.”
Then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named White the City of Los Angeles’ “Ambassador to the Animals” in 2006. The Los Angeles Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers designated her an honorary zookeeper in 2013.
In the late 1970s, White befriended Jack Hanna, who served as the director of the Columbus Zoo from 1978 to 1992. Over the years, she became an active supporter of Hanna’s work and the Zoo itself. She spoke at a Columbus Zoo fundraiser in 1996 and issued a statement of support for Hanna’s 40th anniversary at the zoo in 2018. The entrance to the zoo’s Heart of Africa exhibit is named Betty White Way.
White was careful about how she described her love for animals, choosing to identify as an advocate rather than an activist. “I’m not into animal rights. I’m only into animal welfare and health,” she told TV Guide in a 2009 interview, where she also indicated that animals gave her even more joy than her work as an actor.
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