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Coming Out Against Betty White

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Coming Out Against Betty White

By Michael Mountain, Zoe: It's Our Nature, November 2011

How could anyone be against Betty White? Isn’t that like being against motherhood and apple pie? And isn’t she one of the world’s great animal lovers?

But I’m always a bit leery of people who call themselves “animal lovers.” Not that most of them aren’t just fine. But sometimes I need to know a bit more about what they mean by “loving animals.”

Exotic pet owners will tell you they love the animals they keep in cages. The man who shot himself in Zanesville, Ohio, after letting the tigers, monkeys, snakes and other helpless animals out of their cages told himself he loved them. Animal hoarders say they love them.

Betty White clearly believes herself to be an animal lover. She’s just written a book about it: Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo. I don’t doubt her sincerity, but the book is a major setback for wildlife. The only friends that zoo animals have are the people working to bring the era of zoos to an end.

Betty acknowledges upfront in her book that the animal protection world overall is against zoos:

For openers, let me say that I realize there are those whose minds are irrevocably set against the entire concept of zoos and consequently see only negatives. They have every right to their opinion, and I respect it. As for me, I am a confirmed zoophile, and I particularly appreciate the positive changes that have taken place in the whole zoo community of the past few decades, and the critical role they play today in perpetuating endangered species.

Sure, there are some zoos that support wildlife programs. But this is not their primary business. More than anything it’s a marketing effort – like McDonalds promoting charitable programs for children as a sideline to the main business of getting young people addicted to fast foods.

Betty White is co-chair of the board of trustees of the Los Angeles Zoo, which is currently fighting off a grassroots campaign by the Los Angeles Alliance for Elephants to free Billy the elephant from captivity there and to give him a new life at an elephant sanctuary. The campaign has already been going on for several years after an independent report, commissioned by L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa concluded in 2005 that, by any standard, the elephants there needed at least three times more space than they have. Reuters News noted at the time that:

LA Zoo officials also enraged animal welfare activists by transferring African elephant Ruby to another zoo two years ago, ending her 16-year bond with Los Angeles companion Gita. Ruby was eventually brought back to Los Angeles but all is not well — Gita now has chronic foot problems.

Foot problems are just one of the many maladies that plague elephants at zoos. And getting them out of zoos is not some extremist animal rights position, as Betty White would have us believe. The Toronto Zoo has just committed to a plan to send all three of their elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California. City councilors voted 31-4 to endorse the move, acknowledging that zoos are simply not a humane environment for these huge, intelligent, sensitive animals.

It was a courageous move. The Toronto Zoo now faces reprisals by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the trade association of the captivity industry. In trying to block the move, the AZA threatened Toronto with losing its accreditation if it sent the elephants to a sanctuary rather than to another zoo affiliated with the AZA. This was the a last-ditch effort of an organization that’s running scared that mainstream opinion is now against keeping elephants at zoos.

Betty and the beluga

Many of the photographs in Betty White’s book are of her petting the animals at the zoo – Betty with a giraffe, Betty with a gorilla, Betty with a beluga whale.

The photo of the beluga is especially troubling because of the “smile” on her face. Dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry has called this look “nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy. I think this multi-billion dollar captivity industry is built on that optical illusion.”

While Betty White insists (and doubtless believes) that keeping animals in captivity is helping to protect them, the people who own these facilities have no such illusions. For them, it’s always about business. Belugas, for example, generally sell for about $50,000. When SeaWorld was engaged in a wining, dining and bargaining episode with Marineland, a sea circus in Niagara Falls, the question arose: How much is a killer whale worth? According to the Toronto Star:

In August of that year, [Brad] Andrews [VP of SeaWorld] visited Marineland for further talks. Then it got serious. August Busch III, the scion who was the CEO of the Anheuser-Busch conglomerate [which owned SeaWorld], invited [John] Holer [owner of Marineland] down to Orlando for another discussion. Busch was fascinated with Marineland’s beluga whales.

It was time to broker a deal, but it wouldn’t be a straight sale. Over a barbecue lunch, the two men floated the idea of trading whales. Talks extended into 2005, when trade negotiations took place over a lunch at Busch Gardens.

Holer wanted a male killer whale. But how much was one worth? About four belugas, which Busch wanted. According to court documents, a beluga is worth $50,000. Holer only wanted to give up three. Busch demanded four, but would later toss in two trained sea lions. And the deal was done.

If you love me, let me be me

Several years ago, I sat at dinner with Betty White at the Genesis Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. After a couple of hours, as the ceremony was beginning to drag, I stepped out of the hall to stretch. She followed me and started talking about her anger at a case of animal cruelty that had come to light through a newspaper investigation. “I’m an animal lover, through and through,” she said. And there was no question about her passion, her dedication and her energy.

So I’d love to say that her passion and dedication are making a difference for the animals. But I can’t. I don’t doubt her good intentions, but Betty White is a classic example of the kind of love that’s sometimes more about one’s own feelings than about the true needs of the animals.

So, go ahead and prove me wrong, Betty. All you have to do, as co-chair of the board of trustees of the L.A. Zoo is to tell your co-trustees that it’s time to move Billy the elephant to a sanctuary and give him the kind of life that will make up for the utterly miserable existence he endured every day at your zoo.