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It’s Her 98th Birthday But Who’s Counting: A Conversation with Betty White


On January 17 Betty White celebrates her 98th birthday. Here are some fun Betty White facts – I know them, because she’s told me herself.

She loves, loves working – but it’s really only so she can advocate for wild and captive animals in zoos, and to fund studies to support animal research. For decades, she was on the Board of Directors of the Morris Animal Foundation, and the few Board members who go back that far have told me, “She came to meetings prepared and totally knew her stuff.”

Betty pointed out to me more than once (though it wasn’t necessary, as I knew), “I’m not an animal right person, I’m an advocate for animals – and there’s a difference.”

There’s a magical connection between Betty and animals – something few people have.

I asked her was she wanted for her next birthday, her immediate answer, “Robert Redford.”

Below is an interview I did with Betty when she was a 91-year old young whippersnapper.

Betty White is the energizer bunny. “It’s so silly,” says the 91-year-old beloved actress by telephone. “I’m just an old broad who’s been around the block. People can’t get rid of me, it’s ridiculous.”

The thing is, who would ever want to “get rid” of White? Television producers continue to seek her out because America can’t get enough of her. For her 90th birthday, President Barack Obama read a “love letter” to the performer, who began her career in television 65 years ago.

No other TV career has been as celebrated or as durable. It’s not easy to maintain a career in show business for one decade let alone six. Is it a matter of talent—as the expression goes—the cream rises to the top?

“No, not true,” says White without missing a beat. “The cream goes to the hips.”

White has the sitcom midas touch, from Life with Elizabeth (in the 1950’s) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Golden Girls. Today, she’s on TVland’s Hot in Cleveland, costarring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendy Mallick, and fellow Mary Tyler Moore Show alum Georgia Engle, who played Georgette on the beloved sitcom.

Still, among the myriad of TV appearances, one of White’s favorites was a short-lived series in 1971, which co-starred celebrities and their pets, called The Pet Set. Folks like Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes), Merv Griffin, and Doris Day showed up with their pets. White recalls that one show featured a water buffalo, not a celebrity pet exactly, but from the Los Angeles Zoo (where White has been involved for more than 50 years), and her association with the Morris Animal Foundation goes back about as many years.

Check in Google images, and you can find White posing cheerfully with everything from a chimpanzee to a giraffe. However, her favorite might be a surprise. Aside from a dog or cat, if she could “come back to earth” as any animal, she chooses a moose. “I know, everyone laughs, but I’m not joking,” she says.

Moose are known for their nasty tempers, charging first and asking questions later, which doesn’t sound like the amiable Betty White America loves. “Well, you haven’t caught me on my bad days,” she says.

But these days, she wants to talk about cats most of all.

“It drives me crazy when I hear people say what they do about cats. Oh, that cats are so independent they don’t care or that they are conniving. I know instantly these people have never had a cat,” she says. “They see cats from a distance; they don’t really know cats.

“Cats can be so devoted. They think cats don’t love you like a dog loves you. That’s not true.” She pauses and adds, “My last cat was a beautiful Himalayan—he found me, just appearing one day. I thought I’d keep Mr. Bob (as in ‘Bob-Cat’) for a few days until I found the owners. Well, Mr. Bob wound up staying with me for 11 years. He was such a people-oriented guy. As my knees bent down to sit down, he was on my lap.”

White is also a fan of and well aware of the Winn Feline Foundation, which funds studies exclusively for cat health studies A few years ago, there was a Winn Board member also named Betty White. I introduced the two of them. Of course, the Winn Feline Board member knew about the famous TV star. But astonishingly, the famous TV star had heard of the Winn Betty White.

The TV icon continues, “Our pets are constantly telling us things, with a purr, a bark, a tail-wag, a smile, a paw in our lap. We’re not always so good at paying attention to them, but they’re sure good at paying attention to us. We should talk to our pets, too! What else can we do? We don’t have a tail to wag. I’d like to talk to Robert Redford, but otherwise dogs and cats are more interesting—I think—than many people.”

Instead of counting sheep or puppies, White says, “I sometimes put myself to sleep going back to the beginning, thinking about how that first relationship between dogs and people happened; I think it’s fascinating.”

Will she slow down? “From what?” she asks. “I just keep going. As long as my health holds out, you won’t be getting rid of me anytime soon.”

And that’s just the way America wants it.


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