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Animal Rights Are No Game to TV Veteran Bob Barker

Times Staff Writer

In his mirror-walled dressing room, “The Price Is Right” TV host Bob Barker exclaimed in his deep rich baritone: “The other day a friend said to me, ‘Barker, you are a part-time television host and a full-time animal rights activist.’ ”

The 63-year-old television host laughed out loud. He has become quite a regular on evening newscasts. In February, he threatened to quit as host of the Miss USA Pageant after he learned that 10 fur coats worth $250,000 would be modeled by the finalists over their swimsuits. Barker stood his ground, and fake furs were substituted.

In March, he resigned as host of the annual Patsy Awards, criticizing the American Humane Assn. for “producing a telecast that honors trainers who may have used cruel training methods in preparing their animals to perform.”

In April, he charged that the chimpanzees in the movie “Project X” were treated with cruelty, insinuating that the association--responsible for protecting animals on movie sets and on television--wasn’t doing its job.

Today at 10 a.m., Barker has scheduled a press conference at the Los Angeles Press Club featuring, he says, “an eyewitness account, a man’s sworn testimony in which he describes having seen the chimpanzees beaten by their trainers with clubs, blackjacks and their fists.” He declined to name the witness.

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American Humane Assn. Director Carmelita Pope called Barker “sincere,” but strongly disputed his contention. “We did our own investigation and after three weeks found no substantiation to any of the allegations. I thought we’d settled the dust here.”

The animal rights issue has also affected Barker’s personal life. He is a vegetarian, although he eats fish and dairy products, and his suits are custom-tailored to eliminate the need for leather belts. However, he does wear leather shoes.

“I’ve always loved animals, had dogs and cats as a kid,” said Barker who had “an absolutely Tom Sawyer-like boyhood” growing up in South Dakota. “I had contributed to animal-oriented organizations, but I had never been active until about eight or nine years ago when I was invited to participate in ‘Be Kind to Animals Week.’ . . . As I participated more--I went to meetings and I heard lectures and saw films and I read books--I became aware of the exploitation of animals, and I felt compelled to do what I could. So I’ve become more and more involved until now it is a passion with me.”

His late wife influenced him. “Dorothy Jo was ahead of her time. She stopped wearing fur coats before I ever was deeply involved. She had a mink, then I remember I bought her a full-length leather coat, and she never wore that. She was a vegetarian long before I was.”

Barker is “mostly concerned about the abuses and excesses of animal experimentation-- vivisection ,” he said fairly spitting out the word, about “factory farming where chickens are packed in so closely together that when they die there’s not enough room for them to fall over,” and about the “cruelty” in killing animals for furs.

“As a matter of fact, the fur industry is drying up in most of the world,” he said. “It’s almost ceased to exist in France, in Holland or Belgium and the Scandinavian countries. In Scandinavia, a man or woman wears a fur coat at the risk of being spat upon. So all the pelts,” he added with disgust, “are being sent to the United States.”

Asked whether the purpose of animal experimentation isn’t to advance knowledge about diseases and prolong life, Barker replied confidently: “That’s a myth that has enabled people to make millions of dollars from animal suffering. Absolutely. I do not have the scientific background to present the arguments as well as it could be presented, but I have materials at home. . . . I’m a total abolitionist. I’m against all experimentation.”

Only recently, he said, did he decide “to do something about the cruelty to animals in the entertainment industry.” Thus, his action on the Patsy Awards and “Project X.”

With all this going on, it’s no wonder that when talking about “The Price Is Right,” Barker sounded a bit bored. The host of television’s highest-rated daytime game show--and longest-running on a single network--has been on national TV since his “Truth or Consequences” debut on NBC Dec. 31, 1956. The current incarnation of the “The Price Is Right” debuted in 1972. And he’s been with it ever since.

“I like to try to create spontaneous laughter with these unrehearsed contestants, so each show for me is like mining for gold,” he began. “I’m looking for the little nuggets. . . . I comfortable with. The man from Georgia, he just looked like he might be fun,” said of one recent contestant. “As soon as he opened his mouth, I realized he had a nice smooth Southern accent, so I wanted him to talk.

“The man who picks the contestants is Phil Wayne, one of the producers,” Barker added. “When he first joined the show, I gave him some guidelines: On most shows where they preselect contestants, they’ll choose people who for the most part are between 20 and 40 and physically attractive. The first thing I told Phil was to forget that completely, because I can have a wonderful time with people in their 60s, 70s--I’ve even had people in their 80s on the show. And I told him that if he chose an older person and it didn’t work, I’d never criticize him, because I want him to take chances.”

Barker has to be fast on his feet. When it turned out that one contestant was a sheriff the other day, he grinned: “You here on business?”

Asked about his animals, Barker warmed to conversation. Out flowed a river of affectionate detail. At home in the Hollywood Hills, he has a gray cat named Poncho, and two dogs, “and I’m sure if you name your favorite breed, it’s represented in my dogs. I have two strays, Lupe and Federico. I’ll tell you about Federico. . .

“I was riding down a street where a little dog had been run over and killed. The body was lying there on a very busy street. And I went to pick up this little body and a little dog growled. I picked up the body and this dog came over to me. He was protecting the body, he was staying with his friend. It was Federico.

“I had tried to get Federico to go with me, and he wouldn’t leave his friend. So I picked up the body and put it in my car, and he jumped in the car and put his head on the body. Now this little guy was dirty, no license, no nothing, and I thought, ‘Little man, with that much love and devotion in you, you deserve a break.’ . . . He’s getting it now.”

Barker’s 90-year-old mother, who lives in an apartment attached to his house, had a stroke last year. “She has a hospital bed, seven nurses on shifts, and Federico goes in and jumps on that bed, crawls up and gives her a kiss to get her started in the morning . . . . And Lupe, she’s about 8 years old, and playing like a puppy now. Federico is just a wonderful breeze.”

Poncho, another stray, joined the Barker household after he suffered an abscess to his head. Barker saw him through three operations. At the time, he had two other cats with whom Poncho fought. “Poncho used to come over here to the studio with me because I wanted him to have more chance to run. He had his own CBS tag. Now he gets along with Lupe, but Federico chases him, so I’m working with Federico. I put him on a leash and try to get them together. I’m a much more successful animal rights activist,” he laughed, “than I am an animal trainer.”

Barker leads “a very quiet private life,” says his cousin Mary Bryant, an accountant for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “He doesn’t run around a lot. He’s not your basic Hollywood type.”

Barker is “a very private person offstage,” says “Price Is Right” producer Roger Dobkowitz, who’s been with the show since its current CBS inception. “He doesn’t have people over, he doesn’t have parties. I always attributed that to the extremely happy home life he had with Dorothy Jo. I’m a loner and he’s a loner. I finally got to his house about a year ago, when I had to deliver something.”

Dorothy Jo’s imprint is all over the Spanish-style house, from her handmade beaded flowers and needlepoint tapestries to the china figurines the couple collected. On the main living-room wall is a huge rug, half of it hooked by his wife, half by his mother. The house is, of course, animal-compatible. If Poncho tears up a footstool’s tapestry, Barker forgives.

“If you like cats, you’ll adore Poncho,” said Barker, plopping him on a visitor’s lap.

“He seems to sense my mother’s not well,” he said. “She can do things to him, no one (can)! If I scratch his stomach, he’ll grab my hand; if she scratches his stomach, he purrs. He’s great. He’ll be sitting in the library with me there in the evening, and I’ll be ready to go to bed. He knows the instant I’m ready to go to bed. Now I have to chase him all through the house. He sleeps up there with me, so we play this game.

“It’s . . . I know,” and he paused. “A man of my age running through the house after a cat every night . . . " Once more Bob Barker burst out laughing.


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