An excerpt from Betty White’s new book “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo”

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An excerpt from Betty White's new book "Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo"
An excerpt from Betty White's new book "Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo"

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, however, I am a confirmed zoophile, and I particularly appreciate the positive changes that have taken place in the whole zoo community over the past few decades, and the critical role they play today in perpetuating endangered species. My interest started early on, tagging after my mom and dad, who went to the zoo often, not just to please their little girl but because they enjoyed the experience—some zoos, of course, more than others—and would have gone even if they never had me.

Growing up in busy downtown Chicago, neither of them had come from families even slightly animal oriented, but both my mother and father were genuine animals nuts, and I am eternally grateful that they have passed much of that passion on to me.

It was from them I learned that a visit to the zoo was like traveling to a whole new country inhabited by a variety of wondrous creatures I could never see anywhere else in quite the same way. They taught me not to rush from one exhibit to the next but to spend time watching one group until I began to really see the animals and observe their interactions.

My folks also taught me to discriminate between the “good zoos” and those other places that displayed animals for all the wrong reasons and sent you home feeling sad. So it was inevitable that I became a lifelong card-carrying zoo groupie.

Wherever I travel, I try to steal time to check out whatever zoo is within reach. While I was in New Mexico doing a movie I enjoyed the Albuquerque Zoo. When in Atlanta I always spend time at both Zoo Atlanta (with its record twenty-two lowland gorillas) and the beautiful Georgia Aquarium. More on both later. Chicago has two fi ne zoos—Brookfield and Lincoln Park, the latter of which is actually admission-free! Back home, of course, there is my beloved Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. No matter where it may be, I will never come away from a zoo visit without having seen something or learned something to remember.

How many zoos are there in the world? Take a guess. If you say hundreds, you fall short. Worldwide, there are more than a thousand zoos. Each year, over 175 million people visit the zoos and aquariums of North America, which is more than all those attending professional sporting events combined.

Zoos trace back to somewhere around 2500 BC, when the nobility began building private collections of exotic animals for their own amazement. Of course, human nature being what it is, the idea soon evolved into wanting a better collection than somebody else.

“My zoo is bigger than your zoo!”

“I want one of everything!”

“If an animal dies, I’ll just go out and catch another one.”

Unfortunately, that general attitude persisted more or less through the centuries, until, at long last, the law of diminishing returns began to dawn. High time.

Several zoos in this country claim to be the “first” American zoo—Central Park Zoo in New York, the

Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and so on. But the first zoological garden (which is the formal term for a place where live animals are kept, studied, bred, and exhibited) was the Philadelphia Zoo. It opened on July 1, 1874. The zoo would have been built sooner, since the actual charter establishing the Zoological Society of Philadelphia was signed fi fteen years earlier, in 1859. It was the Civil War that put building plans for the zoo on hold.

As of 2012, there are two hundred and twelve accredited Association of Zoo and Aquarium institutions in North America. Because of the burgeoning human population, wild habitats around the globe continue to get smaller, or even to disappear altogether. Increasingly, the good zoos find themselves taking on the role of “protectors”—or better yet, “conservers”—rather than merely “collectors” of wildlife. Through the years I have visited many zoos, and I would love to introduce you to some of the friends I’ve made along the way. As you have gathered, zoos are incredibly important to me. In this book, I hope you’ll find out why.

Come along.

Excerpted from BETTY & FRIENDS by Betty White by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Betty White.  

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An excerpt from Betty White's new book "Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo"

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