Sunday, February 19, 2012

This actress is all about animals

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, zoos, animals, photographs

A lifelong lover of animals and frequent zoo visitor, Betty White has been a board member of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) since 1974. Ms White, who recently turned 90 years old, grew up visiting zoos with her parents, as she relates in the Preface to Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo. Acknowledging that some folks deplore zoos, she works on their positive side, making them the best they can be, and fostering their role as conservators of wildlife that is all too often being destroyed in so-called Nature.

This image, the book's frontispiece, shows the author with a favorite of hers, Gita the Asian elephant. The two got to know one another before there was an L.A. Zoo, when there was just a menagerie at Griffith Park, up on the hillside. Gita lived 48 years, not as long as some elephant matriarchs, but about average.

Throughout the book, favorite animals are discussed, and shown in wonderful photos. The author will say, oh, she loves them all…but then admit that a few, such as Gita, really are a bit special to her.

For many people, a zoo visit is the only opportunity they will ever have to see many of these animals. I like being close enough to visit the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation's first, though I've been there only twice in the last couple of decades. It is a bit farther to the National Zoo in D.C., but there we got to see a pregnancy ultrasound being done on an elephant. When our son was little, we took him at least yearly to the Oklahoma City Zoo, one of the best in the West, and physically larger than the Philadelphia Zoo.

It is sad to think that an increasing number of animal species are to be found principally in zoos. The part that the L.A. Zoo and others have played in propagating the Condor and the Sumatran rhino is covered in two short essays. The Sumatran rhino is the only one with some hair on its body.

These tiger cubs were born in Los Angeles, where they were neglected by their mother and hand-raised by keepers. A chapter on Keepers outlines the strong bonds that frequently develop between these animals and their caretakers.

Not all animals are so warm and cuddly as a koala or a tiger cub (when young enough). Ms White's father was terribly fearful of snakes, but she fortunately did not inherit his fear. A large snake such as a boa, that is habituated to people, will settle into your arms and relax. They appreciate your warmth! In one picture she is shown holding a boa.

I think I told the story elsewhere of catching a king snake near my home in Los Angeles in 1973. It was fine with being handled by me, but when a youngster from the neighborhood wanted to hold it, it bit him. We persuaded the snake to accept his handling, and he ran over to show his mother. When he handed the snake back to me, it bit him again! I wonder if young Tony just had cold hands. Fortunately, the bite of a king snake is not dangerous, and a little soap and water was all that Tony needed.

It is a rare occasion that I can acknowledge the photographer whose work I use. This is Tad Motoyama, who took most of the pictures in the book, shown with a cheetah. His colleague Miguel Gutierrez took this picture. I reckon that these two guys think they are some of the luckiest people on Earth. I know Betty White does!

Her acting career, in film and on TV, began in 1945 (two years before I was born!), but I suspect it is her work with animals that keeps her feeling like the luckiest woman ever.

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