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The Author Speaks

Betty White: My Life at the Zoo

The TV star, animal lover and celebrated AARP member talks about her new photo book.

Q. You are going to inspire people to get out to their local zoo. How can they get the most out of their visit?

A. Spend real time there. See animals in a way that you can't otherwise. If you see something you like, celebrate it. And if you see something you don't like, report it. By being an active participant in your zoo, you'll get a lot of reward.

Q. You work with AARP to help people live their best lives, no matter their age. How has the zoo enriched yours?

A. Well it gives you a feeling of security, like you're not alone in the world, you have friends.

Q. Four-legged friends.

A. Of course, that's my real family. My love of animals started in the womb.

Q. You greeted one of your dearest zoo friends, Gita the elephant, in a very unique way.

A. Gita was a gentle, beautiful baby Asian elephant. I got to know her quite well. Every time I saw her I'd say "trunk up, Gita," and she'd lift this beautiful trunk, and I'd stand on my tiptoes — I'd have to stand on them just to reach — and I'd slap her tongue just as hard as I could. She'd tremble all over with pleasure: "She speaks my language, she understands me!" We became instant friends the first time I did it. It got to the point where I'd walk up to Gita, say "trunk up," and she'd stick her tongue out. She knew exactly what was coming.

Q. And you also got to take her on walks?

A. The elephant keepers were just wonderful. I would make a point of getting there before the zoo opened on a Saturday morning, and they would walk Gita all the way around the zoo. No chain, no nothing, she would just walk with them. I was invited often to go with them. It was such a privilege to be alone at the zoo, walking next to Gita, as she was strolling with her friends.

Q. Over the years you have known many of the gorillas from birth to adulthood.

A. We worked very hard to raise the funds to build a whole new gorilla exhibit. For a long time, the zoo workers didn't call me Betty, they called me "Gorilla" because I always mentioned the project. So now we have a wonderful bachelor group in one large grassy area, and then we have our Kelly and Evelyn and the young ones in the other, each with wonderful personalities.

Q. Are any of them mischievous?

A. Gorillas have a sense of humor. They do play pranks. For instance, the young girl will stand on her mother's or aunt's head to reach up as high as she can on the wall. She tricks them into playing with her. It tickles you.

Next: Balancing volunteer work with acting. >>

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