'Her Legacy Will Have a Lasting Impact': Animal Groups Remember Betty White's Lifelong Support
On Friday, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the nonprofit partner of the Los Angeles Zoo, shared a tribute to the late Golden Girls star, who started working with the California zoo in 1966 and officially joined GLAZA's Board of Trustees in 1974.
"We are incredibly saddened to hear about Betty's passing this morning and want to offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends as we collectively mourn the loss of a true legend, on and off the screen," Tom Jacobson, president of GLAZA, shared in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. "Her work with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association spans more than five decades, and we are grateful for her enduring friendship, lifelong advocacy for animals, and tireless dedication to supporting our mission."
During her 50+ years of work with GLAZA, White starred and helped create a 1974 TV special called Backstage at the Zoo, which "was revolutionary at the time and brought the Los Angeles Zoo into the homes of thousands of Angelenos to shine a spotlight on the Zoo's world-class animal care team," per a release from GLAZA. She also contributed to zoo exhibits like Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, the Campo Gorilla Reserve, and the Elephants of Asia.
"Betty White Ludden's legacy will have a lasting impact on all of us here at the Los Angeles Zoo," Denise M. Verret, the CEO and director of the Los Angeles Zoo, said in a statement. "She was a long-time champion and friend of the L.A. Zoo who advocated for us and helped to amplify the work we are doing to conserve wildlife. She cared deeply for all living creatures — including us. 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."
The Los Angeles Zoo named at least one of its animal residents after White while the actress served as an ambassador for the park. In 2012, the facility named their newborn orangutan Elka after White's Hot in Cleveland character, Elka Ostrovsky.
In 2006, Betty 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.
"I always wanted to be a zookeeper when I was growing up, and I've wound up a zookeeper!" White told PEOPLE in 2010 about her long relationship with the Los Angeles Zoo.
It's wasn't just the Los Angeles Zoo that held a place in White's heart; the star was a vocal supporter of all accredited zoos, writing a memoir Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo on the subject.
"Modern zoos of today are not like the old, old, old zoos," she told PEOPLE at the time of the book's publication in 2011. "Lot of people have the impression they don't like zoos because animals shouldn't be kept in captivity; they should be in their natural habitat. But what they don't realize is that the zoos not only exhibit animals, but they work in that natural habitat to save small populations of endangered species. They save many animals from going extinct."
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Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo focuses on many of the animal friends White made in her life by quietly watching animals "and trying to understand them," including a 385-pound orangutan named Bruno and an elderly elephant named Gita.
White also had the opportunity to meet and befriend Koko, the late gorilla famous for her understanding of language and keeping pet cats. White first met the primate in 2004 while she served on the board for The Gorilla Foundation — the nonprofit that cared for Koko. Before the introduction, the gorilla developed an appreciation for the star's body of work, often watching Golden Girls and films that featured White. During Koko and White's first meeting, the gorilla invited the animal lover to see her living area.
"It's a privilege granted to very few people. She saves that for the very special," Koko's caretaker, Dr. Penny Patterson, told PEOPLE in 2011 about Koko's gesture.
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"She just talked to Koko as though she were a friend, and they got along famously," she added of White's reaction.
In 2017, White received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for her "commitment to wildlife and efforts to create a sustainable planet," specifically through her charitable work with zoos and animal rescues.
"What a privilege to be honored simply for my passion — for what I love most in the world —animals," White said in a statement in reaction to the honor.
White had a passion for helping all animals, both wild and domesticated, from an early age. She told PEOPLE in 1999 that her parents helped foster her early love for animals, with her father often taking in dogs in need.
"We wound up with 26 dogs once," said White.
She supported pets through her fan club, Bets' Pets, which donates its dues towards animal rescue charities. The Hot in Cleveland actress often supported fundraisers for animal welfare organizations like the Morris Animal Foundation and American Humane.
"For nearly a century, Betty White has been a tireless and devoted animal welfare advocate, and we are proud to have known her for 70 years — longer than any other supporter in our history," said Dr. Robin Ganzert, American Humane president and CEO.
"We bestowed our highest honor, the National Humanitarian Medal, on Betty because she reflected our core values of compassion, caring, and hope. Betty dedicated herself to protecting and improving the quality of life for animals worldwide. She has always been a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, and we are honored to have known and worked with her during so much of her truly remarkable life," she added.
White was often a pet owner herself, with her most recent furry friend, a golden retriever named Pontiac, dying in 2017.
White's executive personal assistant Kiersten Mikelas told PEOPLE that the actress said that she didn't "want to bring in somebody new" because she didn't "want to leave them behind" when she died. Instead, White enjoyed "lots of doggy visitors" and meetings with other "four-legged friends" in the years since Pontiac's death.
"My life is half animals and half show-business, the two things I love most. You can't ask for better than that," White summarized her world to PEOPLE in 2010.