One of Betty White’s greatest legacies is helping animals

Though Betty White was a charming actor with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, her lifelong love of animals was no act.

In the introduction to her 2011 book “Betty & Friends,” she wrote that both her mother and father “were genuine animal nuts, and I am eternally grateful that they have passed much of that passion on to me.” 

Fueled by that passion, White helped countless animals in myriad ways throughout her life.

As a child, she helped care for pets her parents took in when their former owners could no longer care for them, particularly with the hardships of the Great Depression. Naturally curious, she also loved learning about animals from around the world on visits to zoos.

That love only seems to have deepened over the years. She created the 1970s TV series “The Pet Set” (re-released in 2021 as "Betty White's Pet Set") and began each episode by introducing a pet — then their celebrity owner. 

Guests included Mary Tyler Moore, Della Reese, Burt Reynolds and Carol Burnett, as well as animal trainer Ralph Helfer, who introduced leopards, elephants and other endangered species who’d been “affection trained” — rather than whipped or otherwise punished. (One clip showed White lovingly brushing a 500-pound lion’s mane in between kisses.)

She’s also personally supported numerous animal-related nonprofits throughout her prolific career, from donations and volunteering to fundraising and recording public service announcements.

So, in honor of White's 100th birthday, animal advocates of all stripes are singing her praises and wishing her well.

“In addition to her legendary status as an actress, comedian, and producer, Betty White has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to helping animals in need, including dedicated support for local shelters and animal welfare endeavors, fiercely promoting and protecting animal interests in her entertainment projects, and personally adopting many rescued animals,” Matt Bershadker, ASPCA president and CEO, told TODAY in an email. 

Because of her ongoing interest in wildlife conservation and education, White served on the board of trustees at the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) since 1974, but was involved as a volunteer since the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens opened in 1966.

The zoo is renowned for offering quality habitats and enrichment to animals, and White is a big reason for that, according to Tom Jacobson, president of GLAZA.

“The chimpanzee habitat — Jane Goodall advised us in the construction of that — and the gorilla habitat are really the result of her advocating for those animals and helping us get the money to build those,” he told TODAY. “And she also had a really important voice with the creation of our elephant habitat and the expansion of that. As a result, in 2013, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers made her an honorary zookeeper.”

White, who was also the 2009 Recipient of the Jane Goodall Institute Global Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, was gracious to fans when she visited the L.A. Zoo, and conscientious about making sure her presence didn’t stress the animals or inconvenience the keepers, he noted. 

She once arrived with the trunk of her car filled with empty toilet paper tubes she'd been saving, since she knew the zoo needed them to stuff with food for enrichment games for the animals.

Whenever White came for a zoo tour with a docent, she requested two special stops: to see Elka, an orangutan named for her character on “Hot in Cleveland” (thanks to a gift in her honor by TV Land), and the Australia section, where there’s a plaque dedicated to her late husband, Allen Ludden.

“She always makes sure the plaque looks good, dusts it off if it needs it,” Jacobson said. “Then she’ll stay and speak a few words to Allen. That just grabs my heart that she does that. She does it every time she comes.”

White had also been extremely active with Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in science to advance animal health. She served for 50 years as a Trustee, Trustee Emeritus and President Emeritus, and personally sponsored more than 30 health studies that improved health for dogs, cats, horses and wildlife, according to Tiffany Grunert, president and CEO of Morris Animal Foundation.

In 2010, the organization created the Betty White Wildlife Rapid Response Fund with a gift from Betty following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The fund supported studies on the spill’s impact on bottlenose dolphins. 

“Betty was a pioneer in recognizing the need for this type of emergency funding for animal health,” Grunert told TODAY in an email.

The fund, now called the Betty White Wildlife Fund, continues to fund research and address wildlife disasters, she added. For instance, in 2020, the fund provided $1 million to support the rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals after the devastating wildfires in Australia.

“Betty White has been an unparalleled force in making the world a better place for all animals, committing her life to improving their health and well-being,” she said. 

White also helped make the world a better place for people assisted by animals and was a strong supporter of guide dogs. She co-authored two books about guide dogs with her friend Tom Sullivan, who lost his sight as an infant. When Sullivan’s retired guide dog, Dinah, felt depressed by the arrival of his new dog, White adopted Dinah and they shared “over five glorious years together,” Sullivan wrote in the author’s note to “Together.”

In 2005, the "Golden Girls” star also adopted a “career change” dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, an international guide dog school with campuses in California and Oregon. Pontiac, a golden retriever, didn’t quite have the focus to be a guide dog because he wanted to greet every person he saw on the street. But that friendliness was a perfect match as a pet for Betty White.

“Golden retrievers are really extroverts — they love people. They just can’t get enough of saying hello to folks. And Betty is like that: she genuinely loves people,” Christine Benninger, CEO and president of Guide Dogs for the Blind, told TODAY. “She’s the human version of the golden retriever.”

Betty supported Guide Dogs for the Blind long before adopting Pontiac; she made “very generous gifts” each year since 1986, attended events, written personal notes for direct mail campaigns, and recorded two public service announcements, according to Benninger.

“I have the utmost respect for her. She’s one of the few people I’ve met in this world who truly comes from a place of love in all things that she does,” she said. 

Across the country in New Jersey, Betty was a friend to The Seeing Eye, the oldest guide dog school in America. One unusual form of support was offering a very popular bidding item for the group’s annual fundraising auction: dinner with White herself. 

"All of us at The Seeing Eye mourn the passing of our friend, Betty White," the organization told in a statement. "Betty was not just a supporter of The Seeing Eye, but an advocate for the right of people who use guide dogs to have equal access to restaurants, hotels, and transportation. She loved our dogs and they loved her."

Because of Betty White’s affinity for guide dogs and their handlers, for several years she presented the award to the winner of the Guide Dog category in the American Humane Hero Dog Awards. American Humane, established in 1877, works to ensure the safety, welfare and well-being of animals with a variety of initiatives, including the “No Animals Were Harmed” program to protect animal actors in movies, TV shows and commercials.

“She’s been involved with American Humane for over 70 years — that’s nearly half of our 145-year existence,” Robin Ganzert, CEO and president of American Humane, told TODAY. “That makes her the longest living supporter of American Humane in our history.”

White served in various capacities, such as a volunteer, donor and member of the board of directors. She twice chaired the nonprofit’s Be Kind to Animals Week, which teaches children around the country how to have compassion and live a life of empathy for all living creatures, Ganzert said. 

In 2012, American Humane honored Betty White with the National Humanitarian Medal and the Legacy Award. 

“We honored Betty with our highest award for what we termed her outstanding, unparalleled contribution over the course of her remarkable life, and in spreading understanding, empathy, kindness and humane treatment for all living creatures,” Ganzert said. “That is, in a nutshell, what utterly defines the incredible Betty White.”

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