By Eric Miller
All of us at Zoo Advisors and our entire zoo and aquarium community believe that animal care and welfare is the basis of all that we do. On December 31, 2021, we lost a unique champion for those causes when Betty White died.
With the scope of conservation and animal welfare issues that face our community, it’s often easy to feel overwhelmed. Although much has been recently written about Betty White when she died just short of her 100th birthday, I believe that one lesson we can learn is that everyone can make a difference when they focus their passion. Betty was a role model for all of us in the animal community – she made a difference by using her time, expertise, and resources to help animals of all shapes and sizes. Many of us know her from her work supporting zoos: “People forget the good that zoos do. If it weren’t for zoos, we would have so many species that would be extinct today.”
However, Betty also showed us that our care for animals is a continuum from wildlife to pets to service animals. And she was reasonable in her approach. “I’m not into animal rights. I’m only into animal welfare and health. I’ve been with the Morris Animal Foundation since the ‘70s. We’re a health organization. We fund health studies for dogs, cats, horses, and wildlife. I’ve worked with the L.A. Zoo for about the same length of time. I get my animal fixes there.”
Although we know her from Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland and many other media venues, she had an equally strong resume about caring for animals. Following are some of the highlights of her “animal” career:
She was a long-term active Board member and volunteer at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. (Since 1966 she would show up to volunteer before the public arrived so that she didn’t interrupt the keepers’ routines).
She was an active Trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF), the largest non-public funder of pet and wildlife research in the United States, for 50 years. Rather than start her own foundation, she chose to offer her talents to one that was established, a decision that prevented duplication of efforts.
She established an MAF fund that contributed $1,000,000 to Australian wildlife after terrible wildfires decimated their populations.
Similarly, she quietly supported care for dolphins after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Through the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, (AAZV), she supported the Murray Fowler International Veterinary Scholarship Program. She matched dollar for dollar all money raised to bring veterinarians from developing nations to the AAZV Annual Conference. She felt that animals all over the world should be entitled to quality veterinary care.
She adopted a guide dog that “failed” training because he was too friendly, and she went on to become a major supporter of Guide Dogs for the Blind. One quote summarizes both of their characters well, “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.”
Little known until after her death, after Hurricane Katrina she assisted with the evacuation of the surviving animals (otters and penguins) from the Audubon Aquarium to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Her compassion extended well beyond animals. In the early 1950s, she was the first woman to host a variety show, and in 1954 invited Arthur Duncan, an African American dancer, to be a guest. There was strong pushback due to his race, yet her response was to invite him back again and again until her show was cancelled in part over her inclusiveness.
What a resume of caring for animals and humans! Although Betty lived a very public life filled with her passion for animals, hers is also a model of passion that we can aspire to in our personal lives and use to inspire in others. No matter what our resources: she showed that an individual can make a difference.
January 17th would have been her 100th birthday. One of my favorite quotes after her death at just short of 100 was, “Everybody thinks she passed away too soon.” What a testimonial to the impact of her good deeds and selfless acts!
A final quote from Betty: “You can always tell about somebody by the way they put their hands on an animal.”