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Actress Named ‘Ambassador to the Animals’

Times Staff Writer

Actress Betty White has long been an unofficial animal ambassador, writing books about pets and working with welfare organizations.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Zoo made it official by naming the Emmy-winning TV star Ambassador to the Animals during a ceremony attended by about 50 people, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Tom LaBonge

Zoo Director John Lewis presented White with a bronze plaque that will be placed next to the zoo’s gorilla exhibit -- White’s favorite animal is the gorilla.

“It is an honor and a privilege to celebrate Betty White and her lifelong love of animals,” Villaraigosa said. “Betty has such a big heart and a beautiful spirit. She is a ‘Golden Girl’ in every sense of the word” -- a reference to White’s former long-running TV series.

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LaBonge gave White a loaf of bread -- which he gives to “do-gooders” -- and called her “an angel in the City of Angels.”

“Am I going to be tough to live with from now on,” White said jokingly after receiving the accolades, drawing laughter from the audience. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do as ambassador except to love the animals as I have all my life.”

White, 84, has worked with numerous animal welfare organizations over the years. She is president emeritus of the Morris Animal Foundation and has been a trustee since 1971; she has served on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. since 1974; and has been a zoo commissioner for eight years. She also has written two animal-related books and received the American Veterinary Medical Assn.'s Humane Award in the 1980s.

“If any of you believe in reincarnation,” said Tom Mankiewicz, who chairs the board of trustees for the zoo’s fundraising association, “you’d better hope you come back as an animal under the care of Betty White.”

Some at the ceremony praised White for raising money and awareness of animal welfare. “She’s the real deal,” said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Los Angeles, comparing White to some celebrities and politicians whose work with animal organizations is only skin-deep. “She is the liaison between animals and humans.”

“I don’t think there’s a better person to receive this award,” said Susan Taylor, executive director of Actors and Others for Animals.

Tippi Hedren, a close friend of White best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” was among the guests. “She is very committed not just to her career but to the safety of the animals,” said Hedren, president of the Roar Foundation, an animal welfare organization.

White’s television career has spanned more than 50 years and earned her six Emmy awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Among her notable roles were the man-crazy Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the sweet Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.”

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