As if Betty White isn't busy enough.
Yes, she juggles two television shows, heaps of guest-star appearances, and AARP celebrity spokesmanship. Yet America's ageless It Girl still finds time to get out to her favorite place: the zoo. And these aren't drive-bys. White has been intimately involved for half a century with the Los Angeles Zoo, where many of the animals run to greet her on sight.
Courtesy of Tad Motoyama/Los Angeles Zoo
In her new book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, White takes us on an affectionate pictorial tour of her favorite moments, while describing the great asset modern zoos are to the world. The AARP Bulletin spoke with her about her long love affair with the animals who live in them.
Q. From the looks of this book, you get kissed a lot at the zoo.
A. Yes, I do, by some rather unusual creatures. And that's just the staff.
Q. Which animals are the best smoochers?
A. I have some very special friends. I love the elephants; there are a couple who I really am close to. Bruno the orangutan and I have a wonderful relationship. If I get there before the zoo opens, he'll come over to the fence and stick his big muzzle through the chain link so that I can pet it.
Q. Why is this book important to you?
A. This project has been on my mind for decades. I've worked with the Los Angeles Zoo for over 50 years. I've got a wonderful photographer, Tad Motoyama, who takes beautiful pictures. He's always given me a print of the pictures he's taken. So it dawned on me to put a book together to get out the message how much work zoos do, because many people don't realize that.
Q. Work such as?
A. Zoos don't only exhibit animals; they do a lot of wonderful conservation work. Many people say, "Oh, animals should only live in their natural habitat." Well we've done a pretty good job of destroying many animals' natural habitats, and they have really no place to go. Zoos go much farther than just exhibiting animals. They use their animal expertise and knowledge of the wild population, and have saved many species from extinction just by helping them to multiply.
Q. How have the exhibits changed since you started in the 1960s?
A. I got involved with the Los Angeles Zoo because I was kind of shocked that Los Angeles had such a poor zoo inside. I've never been one to stand outside and criticize. I'd rather get inside and see what's going on, see how I can help. In 1966, our present location opened. But now we have a state-of-the-art chimpanzee exhibit, a state-of-the-art orangutan exhibit, and we just opened our pachyderm exhibit. It went from one acre to four and a half over beautiful, wild rolling country. It's really lovely.
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.
Q. You end the book with a chapter called "my misunderstood friends," about animals many people don't want to cuddle up to.
A. The snakes, of course, are the first ones people think, oh no! I have a wonderful assistant and I take her to the zoo's big fundraiser every year. There are keepers stationed around the event. And we have a couple of wonderful snakes that you can handle and pet. Well, it took me a couple of years, but I got her to touch a snake at one point.
A. She was expecting it to be slimy and wet and icky, like so many people do. They are so dry and so beautiful and so warm! I didn't make a snake devotee out of her, but they don't make her shudder anymore. And of course I love them. I can hold them and we have one boa, Jacob, and I can hold him and put him on my shoulder. It's a passion that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Q. You also have an animal closer to home, your dog, Pontiac.
A. Oh well that's my heart, my golden retriever. Pontiac was trained to be a guide dog, but he had a bum leg, which got him out of that program. Whenever I come home late from work at night, I come up to the house and here's this big golden head in the window on the left stairway landing, looking out and waiting for me. I sit down on the couch and he'll bring me one of his dead snowmen. A friend sent him a stuffed snowman one time and it just became his passion. So then a friend sent him a whole box of snowmen. We have regular snowstorms in the living room when he shakes all the stuffing out.
Q. How do you balance your volunteer work with your busy acting schedule?
A. It's not easy. That's the problem. Scheduling is a toughie, but I'm on the zoo board, so I try to make those meetings. And I try to visit it in as much spare time as I can, but somehow my schedule gets booked out farther and farther ahead until I'm embarrassed. A friend will ask me out to dinner, and I'll say I can't next week, I can't the week after, I can't next month. I am going to have to start practicing saying no.
Q. Do you ever take a day off?
A. Not really because nothing else stops. Everything else like the mail gets ahead of me. My wonderful assistant comes in and we'll sit down and go through as much of the fan mail as we can. But my personal mail kind of stacks up. I try to keep that up, but I'm losing a little ground these days.
Q. What new work projects are you cooking up?
A. I have a new show starting called Off Their Rockers. It's a hidden-camera game show, kind of like Candid Camera, except this is older people pranking younger people. That's a big time-consumer.
Betsy Towner is based in California.