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Festival of Books: Betty White on her love of animals and zoos

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

Betty White blew kisses to a cheering audience as she took the stage with Karen Grigsby Bates on Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

“Well my goodness, nobody showed up!” White, once seated, joked to the audience that spilled out of the seats provided, packing into the lawns and any available space surrounding the Los Angeles Times Stage during the sunny afternoon. Yes, White is hot -- even in cities outside Cleveland.

The self-proclaimed “zoophile” discussed her book “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo,” her love of animals and the zoo known as Hollywood in her conversation with Bates. The NPR correspondent opened by asking White how long she had been interested in animals. “In the womb is where the interest started,” White said.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

The longtime TV personality charmed the audience with numerous anecdotes about animals, starting with one from her childhood involving a white mouse she named Pluto that she bought for a nickel at school during lunch, a purchase her mother was none too happy about.

The conversation shifted to White’s love of zoos. When Bates asked which her favorite was, White said she considers the Los Angeles Zoo her “other home.” White explained that she's fond of its “wonderful program of education” and that she loves “to get to know the keepers.”

For White, her book was a way for her to “let people know the good that zoos do.” She is especially fond of the way zoos take what they learn from animals in captivity to help dwindling populations in the wild.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

She expanded on this with a story about how the L.A. Zoo, in conjunction with the San Diego Zoo, saved the California condor from extinction by taking in the last remaining 11 birds from the wild and starting  a captive breeding program.

White’s love for animals was apparent in every response and story told throughout the conversation, but one of her stories was evidence that animals, unsurprisingly, also love White. She discussed her relationship with Koko, the gorilla who had learned sign language.

During one visit, Koko expressed to her trainer that she wanted the doors to her habitat unlocked. When the doors were unlocked, Koko came out into the area where White was, took her by the wrist and guided her into her living space.

White described how Koko indicated that she should sit down beside her, and then they sat and "talked" for more than an hour. She even said Koko’s name for her is Lipstick because “not too many people that go visit her wear lipstick.”

Keeping with the animal theme, Bates asked White her opinions on exotic animals as pets, on people who take their little pets with them everywhere, on people who dress their little pets in designer clothing and on giving live animals as pets.

White didn't agree with any of these practices because none of these situations put the animals’ experience first. “Those people are all about themselves and not about the animals,” White said .

For her, a true animal lover has an animal for companionship, not for show.

It was no surprise, then, when White expressed the importance of rescuing animals instead of buying them. “Don’t breed unless you mean it,” she exclaimed. Bates and White agreed that this advice was not just for animals, and the audience responded with laughter.

Bates then shifted the conversation to White’s 63-year career in Hollywood and why she's remained a favorite for so long. White thought it was due to her honesty -- and her familiarity.

She thinks the current generation relates to her because their parents and even grandparents grew up knowing her. The interview Sunday highlighted her humor and quick wit, and there was definitely no shortage of endearing candor.

Bates closed with questions that L.A. Times readers submitted online. One of them: What is White's favorite kind of animal? “Anything with a leg on each corner,” White said. “If they have more than four legs, I’m not as enthusiastic.”

The audience erupted in applause.

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-- Tracy Brown

Photo: Betty White at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

 
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