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Betty and the Pets

The invitation read, “black-tie optional.” David opted for black everything — a black silk tie with this black shirt and black suit. “Look, even the dogs are wearing tuxedos,” I said. “Will you hold this for me? I need to go get a picture — that’s the skateboarding bulldog.” I handed my glass of wine to David and tottered over to Tillman’s handler while silently chiding myself for not brushing up on my stiletto saunter.

It was when I returned to David’s side, just inside the entrance to the VIP reception area, that I first glimpsed Betty White. She hadn’t taken two steps before she was engulfed by people; she smiled and posed with them for pictures. Twice she walked by me, the fabric of her blue suit mere inches away. David urged me to say hello or ask for a photo of my own, but I remained silent with a doofy grin. I didn’t want to be one more person to interrupt the gracious and vivacious 90-year-old; it was enough for me just to see the living legend.

What I’d thought was merely a pre-party gateway to the fourth annual Petco Foundation Hope Gala turned out to be a related side event for the beneficiary of this year’s gala, a Los Angeles–based non-profit organization called Actors and Others for Animals. For their 40th anniversary last year, Actors and Others created the Betty White Humanitarian Award, the first of which was granted to the woman herself. Because Betty (I saw her in person, so we’re on a first-name basis now) was going to be in San Diego to receive the Petco Foundation’s Hope Award, the two organizations decided to combine their annual events.

This year, the Betty White Humanitarian Award was given to Ed Asner, another Hollywood legend whom David pointed out I’d brushed past as I’d chased after Norman the Scooter Dog for another pup-in-tuxedo pic. A grating shriek reverberated throughout the room, calling our attention to the small stage on which the perpetrator of the noise stood. “That’s Jo Anne Worley,” David whispered in my ear. I gave him a blank look. “I’ll explain who she is later.”

Worley introduced the celebs in the house, and David whispered to me what each was known for — Doris Roberts (the mom on Everybody Loves Raymond), Fred Willard (from Best in Show), Cindy Williams (Shirley from Laverne & Shirley), and so on. When Ed Asner and Betty White took the stage, the room exploded with applause. Though the award was officially given by Actors and Others for Animals, Ed (whom I knew best as the voice of the old guy in one of my favorite animated films, Up) directed his acceptance speech to Betty, who, as with all of the other names called, was standing on the stage with him.

“I had no idea I’d ever be getting something like this from Betty,” he said, turning to his right and slightly behind to catch her eye. “I was thinking, maybe a sexual disease…” He paused to allow for the laughter and then, still looking to Betty, continued, “By the way, did you take your birth control pills? Huh? Answer me!” He faced the room with a nod. “She did. I love the woman. You know I slept with her.” The rest of his brief talk was speckled with irreverent sweetness.

As soon as Ed finished speaking, Worley “kicked everyone out” in a joking but forceful way, sending the celebs to some holding area and the rest of us to the silent auction downstairs. Women worked the crowd, selling “opportunity tickets,” which are the same as raffle tickets but less tacky sounding.

After we’d appreciated the extensive connections Petco has, as evidenced by the variety of goods donated for the cause, David and I waited outside the banquet hall, where the dinner, Hope Award show, and live auction would be held. “Check it out.” I gestured at the registration desk. “A bunch of older, well-dressed people keep coming and going from beyond that wall. There must be some serious VIP shit happening over there.”

David laughed. “The elevator’s back there,” he said.

The banquet hall was grander than I’d expected, with seating for around 800 people. It hadn’t occurred to me until we were seated at our table that David and I were probably the only couple in the building that night that didn’t have a pet. This was brought home when the woman seated to my right asked me what kind of pet I had.

“Um, actually, I’m in between pets,” I improvised. “I mean, I want one, but it’s just — well, I’ve got tons of dogs in my complex, and I consider them all mine. I’m sort of an aunty. Some day I’ll have my own, I’ve had cats before, and dogs, but now is sort of not the right time, and it’s really not fair to the animals if you aren’t able to provide for them the way you should, right?” I laughed nervously as the woman smiled and nodded, then turned back to her gala companion.

Though I didn’t have a pet of my own (yet), I was sure I was just as — if not more — animal crazy than anyone else in that room. Animals don’t have the horrible traits we humans hate about ourselves. When executive director Paul Jolly took the stage to share a poignant story about a severely neglected dog named Wonder, I lost all my eye makeup. When he got to the part about how Wonder would never get to feel the sand in his paws after all, I didn’t bother stifling my sobs.

On the way out, after settling my tab for the small donation I’d pledged (to cover vet care for an abused animal), I spotted the tables of goodie bags, each of them filled to the brim with pet paraphernalia. David and I shared a knowing look, and he grabbed a bag. “For Lacy,” he said.

“And Frodo and Kayla and Roo and Mr. J.V. and — oh, man, there are so many,” I said, listing all of the animals I knew. All I could think about for the rest of the night was how awesome it was going to feel each time I handed over a treat. Then I realized — I do have pets, and plenty of them. Okay, so maybe they’re not mine, not always, but when I’m doling out those goodies, they’ll love me just the same.

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