BELOVED actress Betty White shared a lifelong love for animals off-screen before she tragically passed away aged 99 on New Year's Eve.
The Golden Girls star – whose Hollywood career spanned almost nine decades – died on Friday just weeks before she was due to celebrate her 100th birthday on January 17.
Away from the spotlight, White was a pioneering animal rights activist, dedicating much of her time to saving endangered species and improving conditions for animals at Los Angeles Zoo.
The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the nonprofit partner of the Los Angeles Zoo, paid tribute to White in a heartfelt statement on Monday. She started working with the zoo in 1966 and joined GLAZA's board in 1974.
"We are incredibly saddened to hear about Betty's passing this morning and want to offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends as we collectively mourn the loss of a true legend, on and off the screen," Tom Jacobson, president of GLAZA, wrote.
"Her work with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association spans more than five decades, and we are grateful for her enduring friendship, lifelong advocacy for animals, and tireless dedication to supporting our mission."
'CHAMPION' OF ALL CREATURES
During her more-than half-a-century of work with Glaza, White starred and helped create a 1974 TV special called Backstage at the Zoo, which the non-profit called "revolutionary at the time", crediting White in helping to bring "the Los Angeles Zoo into the homes of thousands of Angelenos to shine a spotlight on the Zoo's world-class animal care team."
Denise M. Verret, the CEO and director of the Los Angeles Zoo, also heaped praise on White for her tireless efforts to help animals and the zoo.
"Betty White Ludden's legacy will have a lasting impact on all of us here at the Los Angeles Zoo," Verret said in a statement.
"She was a long-time champion and friend of the LA Zoo who advocated for us and helped to amplify the work we are doing to conserve wildlife. She cared deeply for all living creatures — including us. Her loss leaves a great hole in our hearts."
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Verret continued: "The LA Zoo cannot thank Betty enough for her decades of support, and we share in this grief with all of you. There truly will never be another person like her."
The LA Zoo has previosuly named at least one of its animals after White.
In 2012, a newbork orangutan was named Elka in homage to White's character in Hot in Cleveland, Elka Ostrovsky.
Six years prior, White was honored as the City of Los Angeles' "Ambassador to the Animals" for her lifelong work for animal welfare.
She was also later named an honorary zookeeper by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers.
LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR
White's affinity for animals began at an early age. As a child, she helped care for pets her parents took in when their former owners could no longer care for them, particularly amid the hardships brought on by the Great Depression.
The star told PEOPLE in 1999 that at one stage, she and her parents were caring for "26 dogs at once."
Her love for animals of all kinds only deepened in years that followed.
She started working with the Los Angeles Zoo in 1966 to help improve the then-lackluster conditions of animal enclosures.
“I got involved with the Los Angeles Zoo because I was kind of shocked that Los Angeles had such a poor zoo inside,” she told AARP in 2011.
“I’ve never been one to stand outside and criticize. I’d rather get inside and see what’s going on, see how I can help.”
Over the next 50 years, she continued to volunteer at the zoo frequently, and helped oversee the implementation of its state-of-the-art chimpanzee, orangutan and gorilla exhibits.
“Many people have a closed mind on zoos," White told Smithsonian. "They think no animal should be in captivity, they should all be in the wild in their own habitat. Well, of course, that is a myth."
In the 1970s, White also worked with the Morris Animal Foundation, which “advances animal health” though top-notch research, and later became a trustee. She also created the beloeved TV series, The Pet Set, which featured an array of celebrity guests, including Burt Reynolds and Mary Tyler Moore.
Over the years, she has also personally supported numerous animal-related nonprofits, from donations and volunteering to fundraising and recording public service announcements.
In a statement released shortly after her death on Friday, ASPCA president and CEO Matt Bershadker lauded White's compassion and advocacy for animals.
"Betty White demonstrated a lifelong commitment to helping animals in need, including dedicated support for local shelters and animal welfare endeavors, fiercely promoting and protecting animal interests in her entertainment projects, and personally adopting many rescued animals," he said.
"Betty was a constant and compassionate advocate for vulnerable animals across the country, and will be greatly missed.”
White, who was the 2009 Recipient of the Jane Goodall Institute Global Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, said the same year that she was "luckiest person in the world – [because] my life is divided in absolute half: half animals, half show business."
"It is so embedded in me,” she said at the time. "Both my mother and father were tremendous animal lovers. They imbued in me the fact that, to me, there isn’t an animal on the planet that I don’t find fascinating and want to learn more about.”
In addition to being an animal lover, White was also a pet owner.
Her most recent four-legged companion, a golden retriever named Pontiac, sadly died in 2017.
Her personal asssitant Kiersten Mikelas told PEOPLE that White chose not to "bring in somebody new" because she didn't "want to leave them behind."
Instead, White enjoyed "lots of doggy visitors" and meetings with other "four-legged friends" until her death on Friday.
TRIBUTES FLOOD IN
Fans of the beloved actress have paid tribute to White over the last 24 hours in their thousands, with many thanking her for being so kind to animals.
“A trailblazer. An original. And a truly kind soul. May she be forever surrounded by four-legged animals in heaven,” one fan wrote.
A second added: "“Everyone loved Betty White for a million different valid reasons, but I’d like to celebrate her decades of activism, advocacy and devotion on behalf of animals and animal welfare, something she learned as a child and made a central part of her life. #RIP”.
White passed away at her home early New Year's Eve morning.
A source close to the star said she didn't have any illnesses and she was not battling any particular ailment.
It is believed the 99-year-old died from natural causes.
Her agent and friend Jeff Witjas said in a statement to PEOPLE: "Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever.
"I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don't think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."
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