LOS ANGELES – When the Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar, Calif., outside Los Angeles, received two baby porcupines, it immediately named the female after one of its most ardent patrons: Betty White. “Then we said, ‘Betty, we thought you might enjoy naming the male,’ ” says the center’s owner and director, David Riherd.
White chose Allen, after her late husband, Allen Ludden, who famously hosted the game show “Password” and who died in 1981 at 63 of stomach cancer. Every time White, who died on Dec. 31 at 99, would visit, which was usually two or three times a year – or when the center would bring animals to her – she’d spend time with Betty and Allen, feeding the docile animals carrots and carefully petting them along the grain of their quills. They’d been rescued as part of a program the center participates in to save the species from extinction. The center also takes in injured animals and exotic (and often illegal) pets who’ve been abandoned by or confiscated from their owners.
Betty and Allen have now been happily together for 10 years, and Betty has given birth many times. Betty the human never remarried and never had children, but she’d often delight in hearing that her porcupine namesake had another baby – and met many of them.
Jan. 17 marks what would have been her 100th birthday. The Wildlife Learning Center is just one of many animal shelters around the country that will be benefiting from what fans have dubbed “The Betty White Challenge.” White was an avowed animal lover, an advocate for guide dogs, a long-standing board member for the L.A. Zoo, and a recipient of American Humane’s highest honor, the National Humanitarian Medal and the Legacy Award. So to honor her on her birthday, people across the Internet are calling for others to pick a local shelter or rescue and donate at least $5. Many have said they’ll volunteer at a shelter as well. All over Instagram, one can find photos of brand new white kittens and puppies who’ve been named – what else? – “Betty White.”
Riherd says they’d already received donations marked “in memory of Betty White,” on the night she died. This was before the challenge even started.
White herself was a donor to the center, a small nonprofit, contributing to its operating costs and paying to equip their one-room clinic, which means Riherd’s wife, a zoo veterinarian, can treat the animals without adding the expense of transport or the stress of taking an animal to an outside facility.
The L.A. Zoo also has been flooded with gifts since the day she died, according to Tom Jacobson, president of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.
Throughout White’s childhood, her parents would take her backpacking deep in the Sierra Nevadas, back when few people did that and few trails were cut, allowing her, an only child, to essentially grow up in nature. White called her parents “genuine animal nuts” in her 2011 memoir, “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.” Her parents often took in stray animals whose owners couldn’t care for them, particularly during the Great Depression. “We wound up with 26 dogs once,” she told People magazine in 1999.
Her relationship with the center began 15 years ago when she first visited to shoot scenes from a movie there. (Riherd can’t remember which one, but does remember White was holding a Fennec fox.) Every time she’d come, she’d meet up with an array of animal friends, many of whom she’d met before, since the center often has to care for the animals their entire lives. “She was just glad to see them again, like seeing friends again, you know?” says Riherd. “It never got old.”
She’d cuddle them, hold them to her cheek, talk to them softly. What struck Riherd was how fearless she was, how unafraid of being hurt or bitten, and “just how much she truly adores animals,” he says. “A lot of animal lovers, they like the cute, furry, fluffy animals. She loves everything. Every single creature you brought out for her to meet, she loved it as much as any of the other ones.”
She memorably kissed a lizard, says Riherd, which he thinks is illustrative, because people are constantly flocking to the center to see two-toed sloths, while the lizards go forlorn and forgotten. But not by White. She got excited about hawks, owls, lizards, frogs and even tarantulas.
As White told Entertainment Tonight in 2015, “I just like animals better than people. It’s that simple.”
There are also photographs of her cradling a boa constrictor at the L.A. Zoo, which she started frequenting when it opened in 1966, then became member of the board of trustees in 1974. Her first act was to do a TV special with her friends from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which greatly raised awareness about the zoo in Los Angeles. Every time she’d come, says Jacobson, she’d travel around the zoo on a tour with a docent, making two stops every time. One was to Allen Ludden Plaza, where she would go to the plaque with his name on it, dust it off, kneel down and say a few quiet words to him. And then she’d always say hi to Elka, the orangutan who’s named after White’s character, Elka Ostrovsky, in “Hot in Cleveland.” Like Betty and Allen the porcupines, Elka is thriving and turning 10.
In 2006, White was honored as the City of Los Angeles’ “Ambassador to the Animals” for her lifelong work for animal welfare. She was later named an honorary zookeeper by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers. She also started numerous charities, including a fund that does research on wildlife disasters, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and 2020’s wildfires in Australia. She quietly paid for a plane to rescue penguins and sea otters who needed to be relocated from New Orleans’s zoo and aquarium during Hurricane Katrina.
Every year up until covid, she’d go to the L.A. Zoo’s annual Beastly Ball, where patrons dine throughout the zoo and get up to see animals between courses. She loved big snakes. She loved large animals. “And she was comfortable being close to them and they understood that and they felt it and then they were comfortable with her and very gentle, as she was with them,” says Jacobson.
White herself had a pet golden retriever named Pontiac who died in 2017. White declined to get a new pet because she didn’t “want to leave them behind,” her executive personal assistant told People.
At some point, the zoo had an elderly elephant named Gita that would take a walk with a docent through the zoo before the public arrived, as part of the enrichment of her life. White would come and walk alongside Gita on many of those constitutionals. She also advocated tirelessly and spearheaded fundraising for new, larger habitats to be built for the gorillas and elephants.
One time, many years ago, the zoo’s photographer came around dawn to photograph a new baby camel who had just been born, says Jacobson. He was surprised to find White already there, dressed elegantly and watching over the mother camel and new baby. “And Betty said, ‘You know, I’ve got a meeting but I’m not going to go until I know that the baby camel can stand up and start nursing,’ ” says Jacobson. She stayed for several more hours.
“Her loss leaves a great hole in our hearts. The L.A. Zoo cannot thank Betty enough for her decades of support, and we share in this grief with all of you. There truly will never be another person like her,” Denise Verret, the CEO and director of the Los Angeles Zoo, said in a statement.
The Wildlife Learning Center brought White’s animal friends to her when she appeared on talk shows, and on her birthday, even once to the set of “Hot in Cleveland.” For her 99th birthday, with the help of White’s assistant, they surprised her outside her house and set the animals in her lap. The whole gang was there: the porcupines, a Fennec fox, a monkey. They also brought a spectacular, huge eagle owl, which White had never seen.
For her 100th birthday, they were planning to bring “a really special animal to her that we hadn’t before, like maybe an eagle,” Riherd said.
The L.A. Zoo had already been planning a 100th birthday celebration for White to attend, and is going through with much of it. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is attending. There will be a garden made of silk roses, after her character, Rose, on “The Golden Girls,” in Allen Ludden Plaza, where people can come and write messages to Betty. They’re also inaugurating a Betty White walking tour of her favorite spots in the zoo, which will also be available for people to participate in online.
White remained on the Zoo’s board until she died. “She was very well educated about what was appropriate for animals and what was going to support saving species from extinction,” Jacobson says. “So her example is something we really want to honor. And that’s part of her legacy.”