Known almost as well for her love of animals as she is for her 63 years in show business, Betty White has written a book called "Betty White and Friends: My Life at the Zoo," and she spent Earth Day with a large crowd of admirers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, speaking about her book and other critter-related subjects in an interview appearance at the Los Angeles Times stage.
White, who visits zoos often in her travels, considers the Los Angeles Zoo her second home and wrote the book "to let people know the good that zoos do. We've lost so many species that have gone extinct and so many more would have gone extinct if it weren't for our good zoos. They not only work for the animals in captivity but also what we learn from the captive animals they take over to dwindling populations and apply what they've learned and help those populations grow," she said, offering as an example a breeding program that increased the California condor population from a mere 11 birds to a thriving species in the wild. She also believes that face-to-face encounters with animals that zoos uniquely provide "make people aware that animals must be protected."
Not surprisingly, she's not in favor of keeping wild animals as pets. "It always has a sad ending. That's why we have zoos," she said, though she had great stories to tell about her encounters with Koko, the domesticated, American Sign Language-speaking gorilla. On their first meeting at Koko's home in Northern California, "I spent at hour and 20 minutes with her and at one point she brought me a little toy alligator. She made me understand her sign language. It was phenomenal, a privilege," said White, whom Koko recognizes when she visits. "She calls me lipstick."
White traced her love of creatures to "the womb," as her parents "were just as animal-nutty as I am and I'm deeply grateful that they passed that passion on to me. Anything with a leg on each corner is my favorite. I find them all fascinating. Though if they have more than four legs I'm not as quite as enthusiastic," she admitted. She talked about her many pets over the years, from the while mouse she bought for a nickel from a classmate, "the only one my mother wasn't thrilled with," to the dogs and cats her dad, who fixed radios, would get in trade from Depression-poor customers without cash to pay. "Of course, the radios didn't eat, but the cats and dogs did. It wasn't his finest business," White said.
Her current companion is Pontiac, a nearly 7-year-old golden retriever that was intended to be a blind guide dog but was disqualified for leg problems. "We're pretty fond of each other. It's such therapy for me to come home and know that he's waiting," she said. She's not in favor of people who take their animals everywhere. "It's not always a pleasant experience for them, particularly little dogs — all they see is ankles and feet — and sometimes it's a dangerous one." She thinks the same selfishness is in play when owners dress up their pets in expensive outfits. "That's about the owner, not the animal. It doesn't benefit the animal. The true pet lover has it for companionship," she reminded.
White is also against the practice of giving baby chicks, bunnies and ducks for Easter but is very much in favor of therapy dogs that brighten the days of hospital patients and of obtaining pets from rescue organizations, "rather than going out and buying an expensive pet. There are many breeding organizations and you can get a specific breed," she pointed out. "Don't breed unless you mean it. That's a good rule for kids, too."
Crediting her three generations of fans for her longevity and popularity in Hollywood, which she called a "deep privilege I don't take for granted," White noted a responsibility to fans to be gracious. "When people come up to you and want to say hello, it's a little ungrateful not to respond," she said. She remains in touch with the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" cast (Mary and Ed Asner have both appeared with her on "Hot in Cleveland") but said she had no plans for the Olympics this summer. "I was going to contend with the long-distance run," she quipped, "but at 90, maybe not."