The Betty White reputation for animal advocacy rewrites history
LOS ANGELES––Betty White, 99, a radio and television actress, producer, talk show and game show personality whose broadcast career began at eight years old in 1930, died on December 31, 2021, just 18 days before what would have been her 100th birthday.
Most of the many obituaries for White published immediately after her death uncritically mentioned her approximately 50 years of active involvement with animal charities.
Exploring the apparent paradox that White continued to eat animals all her life, Andrew Krosofsky of GreenMatters.com concluded that, “In the end, it matters very little whether Betty White was fully vegan, partially vegan, or not vegan at all. In my opinion,” Krosofsky wrote, “her passion, dedication, and her actions on behalf of the animals she loves are proof enough of her sincerity, and she will be dearly missed.”
Never ahead of majority public opinion
But even Krosofsky overlooked how much of White’s work conflicted with the prevailing perspectives within the animal rights community.
PETA, after the 2009 death of Bea Arthur, who co-starred with White in the Golden Girls television situation comedy (1987-1992), mentioned that the Golden Girls in 1987 “did an anti-fur episode and Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White filmed a PETA anti-fur public service announcement on the set of the show.”
Except for that, though, which came more than 20 years after many other prominent actresses began speaking out against wearing fur, White never appears to have been ahead of majority public opinion on any controversial animal issue.
White liked dogs and usually kept one or several, but the same could have been said of people in most U.S. households throughout her life.
Most White obituaries mentioning her contributions on behalf of animals accepted at face value her own statements, some of which could have been fact-checked.
White, for instance, in a 2009 interview and again in her 2011 book If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t), supposedly recalled that her parents, Horace Logan White and Christine Tess White, engaged in animal rescue during the Great Depression.
But was it actually animal rescue, or was it dog brokerage?
Summarized Fraser Moore of Associated Press, “During the Depression, her dad made radios [assembling crystal set kits] to sell to make extra money. But since few people had money to buy the radios, he willingly traded them for dogs, which, housed in kennels in the backyard, at times numbered as many as 15 and made White’s happy childhood even happier.”
How did a man who assembled and sold radio kits to make ends meet, but did not actually sell many radios, feed as many as 15 dogs at a time, unless he also sold some of the dogs?
White recalled in the same 2009 interview in which she said her parents were dog rescuers that upon graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1939, she hoped to become a forest ranger, inspired by camping with her parents in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
This ambition, White said, was thwarted because the U.S. Forest Service did not then hire female forest rangers.
That story also might have been true in part. The U.S. Forest Service ranger corps, existing since the Forest Service itself formed in 1905, did not then hire female rangers, although housing was provided to the wives and families of married rangers.
However, the starting salary for a U.S. Forest Service junior ranger in 1939 was $125 a month, equivalent in purchasing power to $2,326 per month now. Competition for the 400 openings for junior rangers in 1939 was fierce, requiring a combination of rural skills, experience usually gained through prior service with the Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps federal job creation programs, and education in forestry and biology that the 17-year-old urban-raised White just plain did not have.
Smokey & the Lone Ranger
Nonetheless, the U.S. Forest Service in November 2010 made White an honorary forest ranger. Noted TV Guide, “Now she has a ranger hat, a badge and a bear-hug from Smokey the Bear.”
Said White, “In my heart I’ve been a forest ranger all my life, but now I’m official.”
NewspaperArchive.com, however, shows her name paired 1,293 times with the Lone Ranger on newspaper pages, and never with the phrase “forest ranger” before 2009.
Television game show host Allen Ludden, who married White in 1963 and remained her husband until his death in 1981, mentioned in a 1966 interview that White’s “love of animals” was known to her fans.
The Pet Set
Be that as it may, NewspaperArchive.com also indicates that White was seldom mentioned in connection with animals until she and Ludden in 1971-1972 co-produced 38 episodes of a syndicated series called The Pet Set, spotlighting the pets of show business celebrities.
Controversial Hollywood animal trainer Ralph Helfer appeared with exotic pets in 14 of the 38 episodes, receiving far more exposure than any other guest.
Founder of the Marine World Africa USA, Enchanted Village, and Gentle Jungle theme parks, as well as the Gentle Jungle Affection Training School, Helfer was a pioneer of reward-based animal training, but left the exhibition business after nearly bankrupting himself fighting Animal Welfare Act citations––mostly successfully.
Also in 1971 White joined actor Richard Basehart and his wife Diana as a founding member of Actors & Others for Animals.
Morris Animal Foundation
Further, White in 1971 became a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation, which funds veterinary research benefitting companion animals. White served as board president emeritus from 2009 until her death. The Morris Animal Foundation in 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, used an endowment from White to create the Betty White Wildlife Rapid Response Fund.
Reported Jen Reeder for Today, “The fund supported studies on the spill’s impact on bottlenose dolphins.
“The fund, now called the Betty White Wildlife Fund, continues to fund research and address wildlife disasters,” Reeder continued. “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’s “Life at the Zoo”
White in 1974 joined the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, serving for eight years as a zoo commissioner and according to the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Garden newsletter, donating nearly $100,000 to the zoo in April 2008.
“Hollywood stars Betty White and Allen Ludden are enthusiastic supporters of the Gladys Porter Zoo,” in Brownsville, Texas, “and frequently travel to Brownsville to help with special fundraising projects,” reported Lubbock Avalanche Journal travel editor Ted J. Simon on September 15, 1977.
That connection apparently developed through White’s longtime friendship with actress Amanda Blake, whom Simon identified as “a close friend of Gladys Porter.”
Gladys Porter (1910-1980) was the heiress daughter of Earl C. Sams, cofounder of the J.C. Penney department store chain.
In addition, recalled Sue Manning of Associated Press when the Wildlife Waystation sanctuary near Los Angeles closed in August 2019, “Betty White has been a supporter from the beginning,” in 1976.
These experiences informed White’s 2011 book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.
American Humane’s PATSY since 1974
White, alleged American Humane Association president Robin Ganzert to Reeder of Today, was “involved with American Humane for over 70 years — that’s nearly half of our 145-year existence. That makes her the longest living supporter of American Humane in our history,” Ganzert claimed.
ANIMALS 24-7, aware of several people whose involvement with American Humane was as long or longer, including at least one still alive, combed our collection of the American Humane periodical National Humane Review, 1933-1978 (missing the years 1913-1932), finding no mention of White predating her service as presenter at the 1974 American Humane PATSY Awards gala.
The PATSY program, short for Performing Animal Top Star of the Year, began in 1950.
Hero Dog Awards
White subsequently was involved with several other American Humane media events, including as a judge and co-presenter with Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Diamond at the 2011 American Humane Hero Dog Awards ceremony, broadcast by the Hallmark Channel.
Remembered Sean Hawkins, a career humane professional who has served with many organizations, “One of the highlights of my animal advocacy career was working with Betty White when Stacey Candella Baum and I created the Hero Dog Awards, and produced that show for television with Matt Brady and Karen Rosa.
“That’s the first time I learned of ‘second career dogs’ as Betty called her beloved Kitta, a golden retriever who flunked out of guide dog school,” Hawkins said. “Kitta needed a place to go and Betty [in 2005] adopted him! She was the real deal,” Hawkins opined, “and a tireless voice for animals.”
Front for animal use industries
But American Humane, founded in 1877 as the collective voice of the U.S. humane movement, had by 2011 degenerated into little more than a front for the animal use industries.
Hosting the start-up of the farmed animal product certification organization that in 2003 split away to become Humane Farm Animal Care, American Humane subsequently introduced American Humane Certified, requiring producers to meet some of the lowest standards for farmed animal welfare of any certifying body.
That history notwithstanding, gushed longtime Humane Farming Association field investigator Gail Eisnitz, author of the 1997 exposé book Slaughterhouse, “Betty White was a true trailblazer and had a heart of gold. I’ll never forget how she came up to me at a conference and asked if she could give me a hug, because I had done something for the animals. She was a beautiful soul, and she’ll live on in the hearts of those––humans and animals––whose lives she touched.”
The American Humane Association and the Humane Society of the U.S. maintained a bitter rivalry for pre-eminence in the animal sheltering community from 1954, when former American Humane Association publicist Fred Myers broke away to found HSUS, until early 2010, when the AHA fired the last five staff members who headed programs rivaling HSUS programs.
Betty White, however, crossed the no-man’s-land in March 1989 to produce a pro-spay/neuter public service announcement for the HSUS “Be A Pal” campaign––a topic which was no longer controversial, if it ever was, thanks in part to many years of pro-spay/neuter campaigning by Bob Barker, host of The Price Is Right television game show.
White often remarked in interviews that she loved “Anything with a leg on each corner,” a statement which would also include tables, chairs, and sofas.
White on February 7, 2011 met Koko the gorilla at the Gorilla Foundation headquarters in Woodside, California, and made a fundraising video for the Gorilla Foundation on that occasion. Gorilla Foundation founder Penny Patterson identified White at her death as a “long-time supporter/board member.”
But in context that may have been damnation with faint praise, since the Gorilla Foundation has actually published scant if any verifiable research based on the 45 years that Patterson kept Koko, has done little to help gorillas in the wild, has a long history of accountability issues, and long kept another gorilla, Ndume, in severely substandard solitary confinement after Koko rejected him as a potential mate.
Michael Mountain on Betty White
Best Friends Animal Society cofounder Michael Mountain was among the few people to note some of the discrepancies between the legend of Betty White as animal lover, constructed and amplified over 50 years by generations of publicists, and the more troubling reality.
Wrote Mountain in “Coming Out Against Betty White,” posted by All-Creatures.org in November 2011, “Betty White clearly believes herself to be an animal lover. She’s just written a book about it: Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo. I don’t doubt her sincerity, but the book is a major setback for wildlife. The only friends that zoo animals have are the people working to bring the era of zoos to an end.”
Recapping some of the many conflicts between the Los Angeles Zoo and animal advocates during White’s Los Angeles Zoo board tenure, Mountain mentioned that “Many of the photographs in Betty White’s book are of her petting the animals at the zoo – Betty with a giraffe, Betty with a gorilla, Betty with a beluga whale.
“Always about business”
“While Betty White insists (and doubtless believes) that keeping animals in captivity is helping to protect them,” Mountain observed, “the people who own [captive animal exhibition] facilities have no such illusions. For them, it’s always about business.
“Several years ago,” Mountain continued, “I sat at dinner with Betty White at the Genesis Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. After a couple of hours, as the ceremony was beginning to drag, I stepped out of the hall to stretch. She followed me and started talking about her anger at a case of animal cruelty that had come to light through a newspaper investigation. ‘I’m an animal lover, through and through,’ she said. And there was no question about her passion, her dedication and her energy.
“More about her own feelings than about the animals”
“So I’d love to say,” Mountain concluded, “that her passion and dedication are making a difference for the animals. But I can’t. I don’t doubt her good intentions, but Betty White is a classic example of the kind of love that’s sometimes more about one’s own feelings than about the true needs of the animals.”
ANIMALS 24-7, in light of the Best Friends Animal Society’s catastrophic influence in eroding the role of animal shelters in protecting both animals and humans, including pit bull advocacy contributing to 30,000-plus fatal and disfiguring animal and human maulings per year, takes much the same view of Mountain that Mountain took of White.
It is nonetheless difficult to find any example of a human use or abuse of animals that White deplored which was not already illegal and socially unacceptable before White’s public debut in animal advocacy, almost exactly halfway through her long life.