Betty White's name is as synonymous with animal advocacy as it is with comedy — and she wouldn't have it any other way. "I'm the luckiest person in the world. My life is divided in absolute half: half animals, half show business," White, 87, tells TVGuide.com. "They're the two things I love the most and I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal work!" The six-time Emmy winner, who will receive the SAG's Life Achievement Award in January, opened up to us about her lifelong passion and what we can do to be more animal-conscious.
TVGuide.com: You've done so much work with animals over the years. When and how did you become so charity-minded?
Betty White: Oh, I've always been. I've loved animals since I was in the womb. I was the lucky little girl who had parents who went for a walk and they'd come home with a dog or a cat. "He followed us home, Betty. Can we keep him?" [Laughs]
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TVGuide.com: Which gives you greater joy: acting or your animal work?
White: Animals. 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 campaign health studies for dogs, cats, lizards and wildlife. I've worked with the L.A. Zoo for about the same length of time. I get my animal fixes!
TVGuide.com: You're not into animal rights and you've said you don't like being called an activist. Why?
White: I don't get into the political side or the demonstrative side. I'm just totally devoted to health and welfare. You know what the problem that animal activists sometimes have? They only concentrate on the heartbreaking things to the point where the general public think, "Oh, here comes those animal folks again and I'm going to hear all the things I don't want to hear." They forget to celebrate all the gains that we've made. ... Sure, there are still big problems, but we're making some good moves. I'm a big cockeyed optimist. I try to accentuate the positive as opposed to the negative.
TVGuide.com: What do you do with the Morris Foundation?
White: I'm a president emeritus. I've been on the board and funding studies for all that time. I started in 1970, so it's been a long and lovely road. It's so wonderful to feel so proud of an organization when you've been with it for so long. Sometimes you see a problem, but I'm still so proud not only of the foundation, but of the work we do and what we've accomplished. Morris helped develop the feline leukemia vaccine and the parvovirus vaccine and the Potomac horse fever vaccine. We've got a lot to our credit. The good thing is that kind of work is continuing to go on as people learn what important roles animals play in our lives.
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TVGuide.com: What do you do with the Zoo?
White: Back in the day, I was just appalled that a city like Los Angeles had such a terrible zoo and I've never been one to stand on the outside and demonstrate and say, "This is terrible." I just want to get inside and find out why and help, so I've been working with them all that time and it's truly a beautiful zoo now. Our gorilla exhibit is state of the art. Our chimpanzee exhibit is state of the art. Jane Goodall helped us with our design. We just had our opening for our pachyderm forest and it's really a zoo to be so proud of. I love getting to know the keepers because you get that wonderful animal bond.
TVGuide.com: You're active with other organizations too. How do you choose which ones to support?
White: Oh, you should see my mail! It's ridiculous! I just have to grit my teeth and get through them. But I worked very closely with the L.A. ASPCA and, of course, Morris and the Zoo. There are some other organizations that I try to help as much as I can and there are always new ones coming and I'm like, "I can't! I'm tapped out!" You do whatever you can do and the main thing you do is try and spread the word. People are much more animal-conscious now than they were, say, a couple of decades ago.
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TVGuide.com: What's the most important thing people can do to be more animal-conscious?
White: Take personal responsibility. A lot of people go, "Well, I'll get a dog because I have a kid and a kid needs a dog." And it doesn't work out for that dog and the dog is on the street. If everyone took personal responsibility for their animals, we wouldn't have a lot of the animal problems that we do. I'm a big spay-and-neuter supporter. Don't have babies if you're not going to take care of those babies. We don't need more. We just need to take care of the ones we have. Take responsibility and breathe kindness.
TVGuide.com: How many pets do you have?
White: One. ... About a year ago, I lost my 16-and-a-half-year-old Shih Tzu, my 10-year-old golden and my 11-year-old Himalayan kitty all within two months of each other. I was absolutely devastated. I have my golden retriever now, Pontiac. He's a career-change guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind. I said no initially because I needed closure, but I agreed to meet him and go home to think it over. But you don't meet a golden retriever and go home to think it over! I knew I was had. I didn't name him... but I like to think of him as the Indian chief, not the car. [Laughs] When the Pontiac car business went out of business, I sat him down and I explained, "Pontiac, it wasn't your fault, honey. You didn't do anything wrong. They just went out of business."