The late Betty White’s love for animals has long been well known, but one particular act of generosity was mostly untold until this week.
The beloved “Golden Girls” star paid for a private plane to relocate otters and penguins from Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans in the aftermath of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.
“We lost a conservationist, animal advocate, and friend,” the Audubon Nature Institute tweeted on Friday, the day White died at the age of 99. “When the penguins & sea otters were evacuated to [Monterey Bay Aquarium] for Hurricane Katrina, Betty White paid for the plane to relocate them. She did not ask for fanfare; she just wanted to help.”
The aquarium didn’t know about White’s contribution until after the fact. Spokesperson Annie Matherne confirmed to HuffPost that White paid for “a portion” of the rescue mission, but the organization does not know the exact amount because Audubon didn’t handle the transaction directly.
Audubon Aquarium is built on high ground, with strong concrete walls and windows designed to withstand high winds. Aquarium staff had taken measures to prepare for the approach of Katrina.
But in the aftermath of the storm, the aquarium’s generators faltered and filters in the marine tanks stopped working, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. Most of the facility’s 10,000 fish died.
“It was unknown before the storm of just how extensive the damage would be to New Orleans, as is the case with many hurricanes,” Matherne said. “Our hurricane plan does not include evacuating animals ahead of a storm because storms can shift and we do not want to unnecessarily stress the animals in our care. There are also a number of logistics ... that make an evacuation difficult.”
Katrina turned out to be a historic storm that left nearly 2,000 people dead, millions homeless and caused $125 billion in damages. The entire city of New Orleans lost power for weeks, which made evacuating the aquarium’s surviving animals necessary. Those survivors included, among others, all of the aquarium’s 19 penguins and two sea otters named Buck and Emma.
Tom Dyer, who local news station WWL identified as a caretaker for the aquarium’s birds when Katrina hit, recalled in a Twitter thread that Monterey Bay Aquarium in California agreed to take the penguins and otters. Those animals flew on a private plane out of Baton Rouge, Dyer said.
At the time, he knew only that an anonymous donor paid for the flight. It “leaked” years later that the benefactor had been White, Dyer said.
Reflecting on White’s gesture, Dyer commented: “what a Classy Fucking Dame.”