This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Zoo View.
For actress, author, and animal lover Betty White, life truly is a zoo!
Betty White is turning 90 in January – and she’s spent more than half of those years right here at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Betty’s earliest zoo memories predate our current location. As a tot, she visited the old Selig Zoo in downtown Los Angeles with her parents. “When we first came out here, I was a year and a half old. I don’t think California was a state yet—it was a territory,” she jokes. “Back then the zoo was a kind of sad little collection of animals behind wire fences. I was amazed that a city like Los Angeles wouldn’t have a better zoo.”
By the time the Los Angeles Zoo opened in 1966, Betty was an established star of radio and television, with several series to her credit, including Life with Elizabeth, which she also co-created and produced.
The new zoo was a step in the right direction. “I’ve never been one to stand outside and criticize and demonstrate. I’d rather get involved and see what I can do to help.”
She got involved in a big way in 1974, joining the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA). “They invited me on as a trustee, and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since!” she laughs.
One of her first major undertakings was writing, producing, and starring in a TV special called Backstage at the Zoo. “I’d heard too many people say, ‘I’m planning a trip to Los Angeles and I’m going to visit the zoo…in San Diego!’ It was like they had no idea we have a zoo in L.A.,” she says.
Betty recruited celebrity friends, including Mary Tyler Moore, Jimmy Stewart, Greg Morris, Amanda Blake, and L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley to appear in the 90-minute special, which aired in July 1974 on KTTV. “I had all kinds of fun writing it,” she recalls, “and talking to the keepers and the heads of departments. We had a wonderful time.”
Betty often quips that she has to stay in show business to pay for her animal business—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Between long-running roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, guest gigs on game shows, a 20-year stint hosting Pasadena’s Rose Parade, and countless other TV and film appearances, she remained a steady presence at the Zoo, working behind the scenes to raise funds for new habitats for the animals.
“Our first truly major project was Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains,” she says. “We even got input from Jane Goodall, because who knows chimpanzees better than Jane? And it turned out really beautiful. And then we built the Red Ape Rain Forest for the orangutans, and that was lovely, too.”
One of her most poignant memories at the Zoo occurred on opening day of the new orangutan habitat. “I remember the afternoon it opened, and they let the orangs into their new enclosure. They had previously been living in an old bear grotto—a stone exhibit surrounded by a moat—and all of a sudden they come into this big, new grassy enclosure with all these places to climb. It was the first time they had ever been able to climb up and see out over the Zoo. It was inspiring to watch them explore. I can still get goosebumps thinking about it!”
She is equally effusive when discussing the Zoo’s next two major makeovers—Campo Gorilla Reserve and Elephants of Asia. Betty championed both projects, even testifying before the L.A. City Council when animal activists attempted to stop construction of the elephant habitat in 2008. “It seemed like it was never going to happen, and to almost get shut down, that close to fruition—I think it was a whole week that I didn’t sleep,” she recalls. “But sure enough by persevering, we got it accomplished, and it’s beautiful on both sides of the enclosure. It’s great for the elephants, and it’s great for the people.”
Though she has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Zoo and its animal inhabitants for nearly five decades, Betty calls the title bestowed upon her by the City of Los Angeles in 2006—“Ambassador to the Animals”—undeserved. “It’s a great honor, and I do appreciate it,” she elaborates. “It means a lot to me. But it’s the animals that are the true ambassadors.”
She writes about several of those ambassadors—including Asian elephant Billy, orangutan Bruno, and Jacob the red-tailed boa—in her new book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, released in November from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The book, her seventh, features numerous photographs by the L.A. Zoo’s own award-winning photographer, Tad Motoyama. “It’s been in my head forever, but I had no time to do anything about it,” she says of the much-anticipated volume. “And through the years, Tad has given me his incredibly beautiful pictures. It’s our book.” Not surprisingly, proceeds from Betty & Friends benefit GLAZA.
Not all of the animals featured in Betty & Friends make their home at the L.A. Zoo (though most do). Betty also writes about Koko, the gorilla famous for her use of sign language; Beethoven, the Georgia Aquarium’s beluga whale; and giraffes at the Sacramento and Cleveland Metroparks Zoos. “An apology is necessary after my visit to the Cleveland Zoo,” she writes in the book. “I’m sorry I got lipstick on your giraffe.”
Longtime Zoo members will enjoy her stories about former L.A. Zoo residents, including Sumatran rhinoceros Andalas, Asian elephant Gita, hippos Maggie and Otis, and western lowland gorilla Lina.
Betty says her main goal in writing the book was to illuminate the role zoos play as centers of conservation and education. “Many people misunderstand zoos and compare them to the old, old zoos,” she says. “They think zoos are terrible and all the animals should go back to their natural habitat. Well, we’ve destroyed their natural habitat.”
She continues, “I wanted to make clear the wonderful work that zoos do, not only in working with each other to keep the genetic pool diversified, but also in helping endangered wild populations. What we’ve learned about species in zoos we can apply to endangered wild animals—and prevent them from disappearing.”
With hit movies, commercials, a music video, an Emmy-winning turn at hosting Saturday Night Live, and two TV series currently in production (TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers on NBC), Betty’s show biz career is in hyper-drive. But she still makes time for the Zoo and her other animal-related charities.
She has been on the board of the Morris Animal Foundation since 1971, served as a Los Angeles Zoo Commissioner for eight years, and took over as Chair of GLAZA in 2010.
She’s as proud of her work with animals as she is of the seven Emmys she’s garnered over the course of her acting career. Especially gratifying has been the gradual transformation of the Los Angeles Zoo from the 1960s to today. “From my first impression of the old zoo—wondering why a city like Los Angeles had such an inadequate zoo—we’ve come a long way. We have state-of-the-art ape and elephant exhibits, we have the best keeper staff, we have beautiful grounds. It’s a lovely place, and I encourage everybody to not drive past the Zoo, but stop in and see us.”