Betty White heads to Washington to see the animals

WASHINGTON (AP) — Betty White is headed to Washington to see the wildlife — not the donkeys and elephants on Capitol Hill, but the animals in the National Zoo.

After a stop at the Smithsonian on Thursday, White will visit the zoo one day later to indulge her passion: animal watching. She's looking forward to viewing the fertility-challenged pandas and a harmonica-playing elephant, among other animals.

"My interest in animals started in the womb," the 90-year-old actress told The Associated Press. "I think my mother's and father's started in the same place. They were animal nuts long before I came along."

When White was young, her family had pet Pekingese — an "unappreciated little toy dog" that is incredibly intelligent, she said.

During the Depression, her father starting building radios to make some extra money. But most people couldn't afford to buy radios, she said, so her father would trade them — usually for more dogs. At one point, they wound up with 11 dogs in the house.

"Now the radios didn't eat, but the dogs did," White said. "It was not really his best business venture."

Even at 90, White continues to keep a busy schedule. Her NBC show "Off Their Rockers" about seniors playing pranks on young people was just renewed for another season. She also has a TV Land sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland."

White lives in Brentwood, Calif., with her golden retriever named Pontiac, who used to be a guide dog.

"I like to think of it as the Indian chief and not the car," she said of her pet's namesake. "As a matter of fact, when the car company went out of business, I sat him down and I said, 'Oh Pontiac, it wasn't anything you did, sweetie.'"

In Washington, White will visit a sold-out crowd Thursday at the Smithsonian Associates, an educational division of the museum complex. And she will sign copies of her book, "Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo."

It's a mostly picture book compiled over the years with facts about animals. Since 1974, White has served as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. So she gives readers a tour of animals at the Los Angeles Zoo and many other leading zoos across the country.

She closes her book with parting shots of a giraffe's behind, followed by a bear's behind.

When White has a chance to visit a zoo, she said she likes to stay for a long time and watch the animals relax. She wrote her book to let people know about all the good zoos do.

"So many people say, 'Oh, I hate zoos. I want all the animals to be back in their natural habitat,'" she said. "Well, you know what we've done to their natural habitat.

"Without zoos, we would have lost already so many species."

White says she's fascinated by nearly every creature, even snakes, and has a hard time naming favorites. She does love elephants, bears and poodles, though, to name a few.

On Friday, the Smithsonian's National Zoo will roll out the red carpet to give White a look at their research efforts behind the scenes. She will also sign copies of her book.

Zookeepers plan to show her the Asian elephants up close, including Shanthi who plays harmonica with her trunk, as well as the popular pandas, the great apes and the Panamanian golden frog. The zoo is leading an effort to fight a fast-spreading fungus blamed for wiping out dozens of amphibian species.

Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said the scientists and animal keepers are excited to host White.

"It's very personal for us because she's beloved by millions," she said. "For my colleagues to know that someone who actually cares about them and cares about their work conserving species is coming here ... We're really honored, quite frankly."

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