Betty White: Animal Lover

May 21, 2012

“I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business,” Ms. White says in Lisner appearance.

By Kurtis Hiatt

Everyone knows Betty White the Golden Girl. But not as many know Betty White the animal lover and activist. And even fewer know Betty White the animal.

“Oh, a moose,” the 90-year-old said, hardly pausing to consider when asked what animal she’d like to be. “I know they’re not really the most glamorous. But they live up in the high country, on the edge of these mountain lakes. It’s up in the lonely country where there aren’t a lot of people.”

Delighting a crowd of 1,500 in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, Ms. White reminisced last Thursday in a Smithsonian Associates event on her life in show business and even offered some advice to up-and-coming actors.

But what she really wanted to talk about with interviewer Sam Litzinger, host of WAMU’s “The Animal House,” was her love affairs—with Gita the elephant, Bruno the orangutan and Koko the gorilla.

As her interviewer flipped through her latest book, “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo,” Ms. White, who has for decades worked with the Los Angeles Zoo, dished on some of her favorite animals—especially her Gita.

“I would walk out and I’d say, ‘Trunk up, Gita!’ And she’d put her trunk up and I’d slap her tongue as hard as I could,” Ms. White recalled.

“That was the biggest turn on,” she said, adding innocently (but not really), “We kind of discovered it together.”

Then there’s Bruno and Koko. Bruno, the 380-pound orangutan, is “a fascinating, gorgeous, big guy,” who will deign to greet Ms. White—but at his leisure. She described how she could see the “wheels turning in his head” as he considered: “ ‘She wants me to go all the way down there? OK, whatever…’ ”

Koko, a gorilla who can sign, is a little more forward. With some forceful pointing, Koko once got her keeper to unlock the door so Ms. White could come in. And when she got in, well, “She tried to unbutton my blouse,” Ms. White said to laughter.

Her fervor for animals drives her life. Ms. White grew up in a family that always had dogs; her father tried to make extra cash by selling radios but could only trade them for dogs. And she has a golden retriever, Pontiac. As she says, “I’ll take anything with a leg on each corner.” Back in the “boyfriend days,” Ms. White even judged a suitor by how he treated her pets.

So it’s not surprising Ms. White would make zoos her signature issue, earning an “ambassador to the animals” award to her seven Emmys. They do critical work, she said, saving animals on the brink of extinction and providing a home for those who’ve lost theirs—often because of humans who steal away their native habitats, she said.

“It is possible to save them, if you really put your mind to it,” she said.

And no animal is too small—or too ugly. “I don’t think there’s an animal on this planet I don’t find fascinating,” she said. But those with more than four legs are just “abusing a privilege,” Ms. White joked.

Would she consider letting her interviewer teach her how to hold a tarantula? Mr. Litzinger asked. Without missing a beat, Ms. White replied: “I’ve heard of a come-on before…”

Thursday’s event wasn’t all just about animals, though.

Ms. White recalled when the show biz bug bit her—she wrote herself in as the lead in her Japanese-inspired play “Land of the Rising Sun” in grammar school. And she told the story of how she got her first job in radio—after she hung around the casting office long enough, a producer offered her a role. Her line? “Par-tay” (as in, “party”). Just make sure you don’t say “parfait,” her friends told her.

She didn’t, and so began her illustrious career. Early on, she appeared as Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.” But the roles have gotten bawdier with age. She plays Elka Ostrovsky in “Hot in Cleveland,” stages pranks on unsuspecting youngsters in her “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” and is the oldest person ever to host “Saturday Night Live.” (By the way, to those who consider Ms. White’s recent successes as a comeback of sorts: “I have to tell you guys, I’ve never been away!”)

Ms. White rarely has free time but can sneak away for a few days to Carmel, Calif., for some R&R. And in case you’re wondering, she readily admits she’s not doing the tweeting on the official @BettyMWhite. Don’t even ask why she’s not on Facebook. “The more I found out about it, the more I thought it was a complete waste of time,” she said, laughing.

Her advice for budding actors looking to enjoy similar success? Show up. Work hard. Take whatever you can get, even if it’s unpaid and you have to get another job. And take everything seriously. Because when it works out, it’ll be worth it.

“It’s such a privilege I can taste it every minute.”

Student Life