When Kim Basinger hits the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington Jan. 19 for the "Animals' Inaugural Ball" held by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, she will be following in the glamorous paw prints of many other Hollywood actresses who are active in animal causes.
Although Bob Barker and Earl Holliman are known for their
animal activism, the best-known celebrities in the movement are women. Is there a special affinity between Hollywood women and vulnerable animals? Women who are chewed up and abused and treated like cattle by the star system?
"That's a bit of a stretch," says Tippi Hedren (on the phone from her Shambala preserve in California).
Ms. Hedren, star of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and "Marnie," and an active advocate for animal issues, adds, "It is true that the animals accept you no matter what -- they never say you're too old or you're too young or that you're not blond enough."
More likely, these women -- Brigitte Bardot, Doris Day, Betty White, Kirstie Alley, Loretta Swit, Brooke Shields, Stefanie Powers, Rue McClanahan, Mary Tyler Moore and Audrey Hepburn among them -- are part of a general demographic trend. More than 60 percent of the country's veterinary students are women (up from less than 10 percent in the late 1960s), and at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, that figure is 70 percent. And though the American Association of Zookeepers doesn't have a statistical breakdown, it reports a huge increase in women in its ranks.
"I think it is just a reflection of the general population," says Ms. White, one of the most respected and tireless crusaders. Much of her effort is on behalf of the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit group that subsidizes animal health studies at veterinary colleges.
Her kind of low-key work doesn't grab headlines the way, she says, "throwing blood on a fur coat" does. But the Morris Foundation has had a hand in finding vaccines for feline leukemia and parvovirus -- things that make an enormous difference.
Ms. White has also worked with the Los Angeles Zoo for more than a decade and says 52 percent of the keepers are now women. She says she thinks nurturing animals comes a little more naturally to women -- "but that isn't to say I don't think men can be good at it, too."
During the filming of her show, "The Pet Set," she says, she was never injured despite having elephants, lions, water buffaloes, ostriches and zebras in the studio. She says women may "have a little more trust and confidence in animals."
Carol Antoinette Peacock, a Boston psychologist in private practice, believes that women are permitted to be more vulnerable than men, more willing to relinquish control and more attuned to others. She says these things are not exclusive to women, but men are discouraged in this society from displaying these characteristics.
"I think women read cues better," Ms. Peacock said. "We take all those skills we have to connect to other people and use them to connect with animals. That isn't to say that men can't. But men are embarrassed to fall apart around a cute little animal. We let our defenses down and are better able to commune with the animal."
The long list of female stars involved with animal causes would seem to support that theory.
Ms. Hedren runs the Shambala reserve, which is made up of animals used in her movie "Roar" (never released in the United States) and abandoned big cats. She now has two elephants and 63 lions, tigers, leopards and cougars.
Ms. Powers is one of the directors of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which runs a 15-acre education and conservation center on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Ms. Alley is helping to fund a proposed chimpanzee sanctuary in Burundi for the Jane Goodall Institute.
Ms. Hepburn, Ms. Moore and Ms. Shields have helped the ASPCA in New York.
Ms. Swit is a hurricane of humane work. She has campaigned against furs and trapping; in the 1980s, she successfully fought to stop commercial hunting of harp seal pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Her show, "Those Incredible Animals," is carried on the Discovery Channel.
Ms. Day has two foundations, the Doris Day Pet Foundation and Doris Day Animal League. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Knowing her soft heart, people call Day all the time and tell her they'll take their dog to the SPCA to be put to sleep if she doesn't come and get it."
Do all these animal-loving stars hang out together? Well, not exactly, but Ms. White speaks highly of Ms. Swit's work and adds that she ran into another celebrity in a grocery store in Carmel, Calif., recently.
"There I was looking like fried hell," Ms. White says, "and I heard, 'Betty! Betty!' " Turning around and expecting someone who recognized her from TV, she instead found Ms. Day. Ms. White says they took 20 minutes to get caught up with each other.