Betty White's Wild Kingdom

Betty White

She is the original America's sweetheart. Baby-faced and witty in the 1950s sitcom "Life With Elizabeth." Sultry and outre as Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." And, of course, delightfully dim as Rose on "Golden Girls."

Not that anyone could forget her recurring role as the conniving, gossip-loving Catherine Piper in ABC's "Boston Legal."

But Betty White hasn't stopped there. Starting next week, White will appear as the flip Elka in the premiere of TV Land's first scripted comedy, "Hot in Cleveland." The cast is chock full of talented actors, including Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves.

Betty White: The Golden Girl
Betty White: The Golden Girl

But it is the legendary White who has built most of the buzz for the new comedy.

Some are calling the recent proliferation of White on the airwaves -- she recently hosted "Saturday Night Live" -- a career renaissance. But her star never really faded. For six decades, she has been a fixture in the world of entertainment, from game shows to hit sitcoms, late-night hosting gigs to hit ad campaigns.

Funny, then, that White, now 88½ years young, calls acting "just a hobby."

VIDEO: Comic actress says co-star Rue McClanahan was "our butterfly."

Rivaling White's "hobby" in front of the camera is one she is less known for but equally committed to. For decades, the Los Angeles Zoo has been White's second home. To say that she's a familiar face among the cages would be a vast understatement.

"Well, I've been around so long they can't get rid of me," said White on a recent trip to the zoo, where she has worked for four decades as a trustee, fundraiser and all-around booster. Indeed, White not only knows the zookeepers but most of the animals as well, by name.

"Growing up, first I wanted to be a forest ranger, and girls couldn't be forest rangers back then," White said. "Then I thought, oh, but I want to be a zookeeper. And back then, girls weren't zookeepers either, but I wound up a zookeeper. I made my goal."

Betty White: The Sweetheart Treatment

White is perfectly democratic in her bestowal of affection across the animal kingdom. A koala bear gets the "sweetheart" treatment.

"Come on over here sweetheart, where we can see your pretty face," White told one bear. "That's it, come on, baby. That's my baby, that's my baby. That's my girl. A little girl."

Even less traditionally cute specimens -- a tapir, say -- win White's enthusiastic love.

"There's my baby," White tells one. "Look at that beautiful baby."

Tapirs are fuzzy quadrupeds with cannon-shaped snouts that despite centuries of evolution retain a look that can only be described as "prehistoric." And she calls this cuddly?

"To me they are," White said, laughing.

Also cuddly is Billy the elephant. Billy the elephant gets serious "sweetheart" treatment.

"There's our Billy. There's our Billy," White cooed as the ponderous animal approached. "Come on baby, come on baby, come on sweetheart. Come on darlin', come on sweetheart... good boy. Good boy. Well thank you for coming.

Billy has reason to be extra friendly with White. The actress is playing elephant matchmaker, helping to raise $42 million to find a mate and provide habitat and expenses for the elephant's future family.

"But there's a certain breeding age, there's a very, very serious situation, but we'll find her for you, Billy, I promise," White said.

And it's not just Billy who's benefiting. As we find out, her zeal sows human rewards, too.

Dean Hite, a member of the plumbers union, was working on the zoo's new elephant habitat.

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