7 January 2022

What Does It Mean to Be an “Animal Lover”?

By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

Description: Description: Ms. White and her husband, Allen Ludden, at a fund-raising party for the Los Angeles Zoo in 1979. Ms. White had a longstanding interest in animal welfare.
Ms. White and her husband, Allen Ludden, at a fund-raising party for the Los Angeles Zoo in 1979. Ms. White had a longstanding interest in animal welfare. Credit: NewsBase/Associated Press

The term “animal lover” sounds like a relic of a bygone era, pre-1990s at least. For modern animal rights advocates, “animal lover” sounds quaint, but the mainstream media seem content with it. Granted, being an “animal lover” is better than being an animal hater, but should we embrace this attribution as a tribute to the designee or as a favor to animals? What might animals say if they could weigh in?

Tributes to celebrity actress Betty White, who died December 31, 2021 at age 99, led me to raise the question in a comment I posted to Animals 24-7’s more sobering look at Betty White’s decades-long association with animal welfare. The thoughts presented here expand that comment. I knew Betty White from ads for Golden Girls, a popular TV comedy in which she starred from 1985-1992. Scanning tributes to her in early January, 2022 prompted by her death, I saw among the accolades that she was a front for the American Humane Association’s seal of assurances that “No Animals Were Harmed” in the making of films in which animals appeared under AHA’s oversight. I think there is evidence to the contrary.

A question I asked was, did Betty eat animals? She not only ate them; she publicized her consumption of animals to the point of being the celebrity booster for a hot dog business in Los Angeles. Of course, she is beloved by the owner of that business. A hot dog has been named for her with proceeds from sales going to the Los Angeles Zoo.

Unfortunately, the term “animal lover,” whether attributed to a celebrity or anyone else, suggests that the person may be more cloyingly sentimental than truly sensitive toward nonhuman animals, their feelings, needs and miserable frustration in institutional captivity. Thus I believe it is time to retire the term “animal lover,” which is as demeaning and patronizing toward animals as this same type of attribution would be in being used to characterize a socially privileged person who “loves” an oppressed human population.

The fact that Betty White has been gushed over, almost universally, by celebrities, media, and other commentators signals that she was an “animal lover” who ensured that the status quo would not be disturbed and would even be enshrined. Betty’s love for animals is reminiscent of white people’s professed “love” for cute little “colored” children, as reflected in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Life Among the Lowly. Such “love” is quite compatible with an approval of enslavement of the “loved” objects of affection.

Don’t Disturb the Dead

A couple of comments to the Animals 24-7 critique of Betty White’s animal-loving career complained that she should be allowed to rest in peace unexamined as to her actual commitment and contribution to animals and their so-called welfare. To which I replied that the critique legitimately looks beyond the clichés to provide a fuller picture of Betty’s involvement on behalf of animals. By putting herself in the limelight, she invited scrutiny.

Betty White was a public figure who constructed a persona for public consumption. The fact that she died or is still fresh in the grave does not exempt her public doings from examination, including criticism when the shadow falls between fiction and fact. I believe she honestly cared about some animals – the kinds of animals it is socially “safe” to “love” and the kind of care that does not rock the boat. At the same time, the animals she was photographed with, whether wildlife captives or pampered pets, were props for her celebrity image. She and her publicists knew that the public loved her twinkly face snuggled up to captive creatures who were made to appear to “smile” for the camera.

Smug Love for Animals

“Animal lovers will find much to savor.”
Publishers Weekly (2021)

I posted a review on Amazon along these lines, in October 2021, of New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean’s collection of essays in her book, On Animals – hailed mightily on Amazon by the pundit media. I’m pleased that so far my customer review has garnered the majority of “Helpful” clicks. I wrote:

As for this superficial set of essays by Susan Orlean assembled in “On Animals”: The type of “love” Orlean patronizingly has for animals is the type conventional reviewers love to praise and promote since it conveys, falsely but comfortably, that you can “love” nonhuman animals the way many white people in the South “loved” their African-American slaves while supporting their victims’ enslavement against their will (of course) and forcing them, through legalized torture and terror, to work or die or be sold.

Orlean speaks of the animals she is “fascinated with” as if they were nothing more than objects for her amusement while ensuring that complacent readers will be unfazed by the human brutality and animal suffering she describes and supports. She shows no true respect for our fellow creatures, making her book just one more self-satisfied effusion that goes nowhere but back to the beginning. So much for the globetrotting aspect. ‑ Karen Davis

I thank Mary Finelli of Fish Feel for responding to the question of Betty White’s diet in the comments section of the Animals 24-7 article on Betty White. It irks me that the only chicken ‑ the only farmed animal ‑ Betty probably ever loved was the one on her plate.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds - From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl published by Lantern Publishing & Media.