Let’s Be Like Betty White
Reflecting on the cultural legend’s decade-spanning pet enthusiasm and wildlife advocacy. Plus, how to take part in the #BettyWhiteChallenge!
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“I just like animals more than I like people. It’s that simple.”
— Betty White
Betty White was many things through her nearly 100 years of life: actress, icon, inspiration, subject of Ryan Reynolds’ unreciprocated love. She was a pioneer of early television, hosting and producing The Betty White Show, then becoming the first woman to produce a sitcom with Life with Elizabeth, in which she also starred. Following her initial success in the early ’50s, her career in television would go on to last over seven decades, highlighted by her work in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hot in Cleveland, and of course The Golden Girls.
This longevity — coupled with White’s undeniable, borderline unbelievable charm — made her a staple in the industry; and through it all, she never wavered in her youthful warmth, snark, optimism, and all-around desire to live life smiling. But when she wasn’t refining the course of television history or helping us collectively alter our perception of time and how we age through it, she was creating a better world for the wildlife who share our planet.
White was a long-time pet enthusiast and animal advocate, working with various organizations for nearly as long as she was in the public eye. Beginning in 1971, the actress became a trustee for the Morris Animal Foundation, a Colorado-based charity focused on advancing animal health by providing funding to veterinary research for companion animals, horses, and wildlife. White would remain a trustee with the foundation and in 2009 took on the role of president emerita.
“It is hard to imagine a world without Betty in it. She was a tremendous animal advocate who tirelessly supported the work of the Morris Animal Foundation to improve the health of animals globally. All of us at the Foundation are mourning the loss of this amazing woman,” President and CEO of Morris Animal Foundation Tiffany Grunert said in a statement. “We will miss her wit, her intelligence and, most of all, her love of animals and commitment to advancing their health. She was a true inspiration to our staff, her fellow trustees and all of our supporters.”
One of White’s last initiatives with the foundation was establishing the The Betty White Wildlife Fund in response to the lingering impact the Deep Water Horizon oil spill had on marine life. The fund was designed to give wildlife researchers timely monetary aid to respond to unexpected events, such as natural disasters and emerging diseases, that require immediate action and research.
“I learned that a visit to the zoo was like traveling to a whole new country inhabited by a variety of wondrous creatures I could never see anywhere else in quite the same way.”
— Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo
Shortly after partnering with Morris Animal Foundation, the cultural icon became a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) in 1974. She took a break from that role in 1997 to become an inaugural member of the Board of Zoo Commissioners, a position she served in for eight years before later becoming chair of the GLAZA board in 2010.
“Her work with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association spans more than five decades, and we are grateful for her enduring friendship, lifelong advocacy for animals, and tireless dedication to supporting our mission,” said Tom Jacobson, president of GLAZA, in the Los Angeles Zoo’s tribute to Betty White.
White also supported the African Wildlife Foundation, Actors and Others for Animals, American Humane, along with various other organizations benefiting animal welfare. Beyond donating, Betty White was dedicated to animal advocacy on a personal level. Early in her career, the trailblazing actress leveraged her success to promote the joys of pet parenting by creating and hosting The Pet Set. The 1971 series ran for 39 episodes and featured conversations with celebrities on pet care, ecology, and wildlife preservation. Following Hurricane Katrina, Betty White paid to evacuate animals from Audubon Aquarium — a fact not known publicly before last week.
In 2011, White turned her passion for wildlife into a book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, with proceeds benefiting GLAZA. It’s a collection of stories and essays on her favorite zoos, their employees, and their animals. She writes about what zoos meant to her throughout her life — a passion she inherited from her parents.
“It was from them I learned that a visit to the zoo was like traveling to a whole new country inhabited by a variety of wondrous creatures I could never see anywhere else in quite the same way,” White writes. “They taught me not to rush from one exhibit to the next but to spend time watching one group until I began to really see the animals and observe their interactions.”
It was this wide-eyed, patient enthusiasm White brought to not only her work, but her everyday life. It’s why anyone who spent any time with her seemed to have had a delightful experience and why her age never seemed relevant or detrimental to her. She never got caught up in what she did in the past or what she was or wasn’t able to do in the future because she was too busy enjoying the moment she was in. Just as it’s hard to imagine television without her, so too is it difficult to envision White without her love and advocacy for animals — and they’re both much improved following her involvement. Take it from the one who loved her most:
“The world looks different now,” wrote Ryan Reynolds following the news of her passing. “She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty.”
On January 17th, which would have been her 100th birthday, many fans are preparing to partake in the Betty White Challenge. The movement quickly developed on social media and encourages a $5 donation to local animal rescues, shelters, or other related organizations that benefit animal welfare in her name. If looking for a way to honor Betty White’s legacy, please also consider supporting:
Adoption isn’t for everyone — here are other ways you can be there for animals in need.
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Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and whose behavioral issues rival his own.