Bob Barker, Betty White and Their Fight Over Billy the Elephant

by Joe Holman
Bob Barker, Betty White and Their Fight Over Billy the Elephant

Bob Barker and Betty White were American television fixtures for decades who were united in their support of animal welfare causes but were divided about what they thought was best for an elephant named Billy.

The tension between them, about a planned renovation of the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant exhibit, became fodder for celebrity and gossip outlets. Barker, who died on Saturday, had opposed the renovation and wanted the one elephant left at the zoo at the time, Billy, to be moved to a sanctuary. White, who was deeply involved with the zoo, supported the renovation.

In January 2009, Barker, Cher and Lily Tomlin spoke at a Los Angeles City Council meeting to oppose the renovation and Barker offered to pay $1.5 million to relocate Billy.

Barker had opposed the exhibit for years, and in 2006 said that the elephants there had “lived in misery.”

The zoo’s nonprofit partner, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, responded that the zoo was the elephant’s home and that it would give Billy and other elephants “a level of personal care and state-of-the-art veterinary services they simply won’t get anywhere else,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

White had a more than five-decade relationship with the zoo and was a trustee of the Zoo Association at the time of her death in December 2021. She told The New York Times in 2011 that the zoo was her home away from home and that she could drop by outside normal visiting hours.

She spoke in support of the renovation at a City Council meeting and stood by the project in a 2012 interview with the zoo’s magazine, Zoo View.

“It seemed like it was never going to happen, and to almost get shut down, that close to fruition — I think it was a whole week that I didn’t sleep,” she said. “But sure enough, by persevering, we got it accomplished, and it’s beautiful on both sides of the enclosure. It’s great for the elephants, and it’s great for the people.”

Representatives for Barker and White did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The disagreement gave rise to a rumor of a feud between the two that was published in 2009 in The National Enquirer, which cited anonymous sources saying that Barker had threatened to not attend the Game Show Awards if White attended. Neither Barker nor White appears to have addressed the rumor in public.

Barker did attend the 2009 award show, where he was honored for his work on “The Price Is Right.”

White, who won the award for Favorite Celebrity Player for “Million Dollar Password,” only appeared at the show in a video tribute to Mark Goodson, who produced shows including “The Price Is Right,” “Family Feud” and “Match Game.”

Four years later, White tried to make amends, The National Enquirer said, again citing an anonymous source.

Billy still lives at the zoo, though a Los Angeles City Council committee said in December 2022 that after 30 years, Billy should be moved to a sanctuary.

Cher and Tomlin are still supporting the effort to move Billy. The zoo said that it disagreed with the effort and that it had “complete confidence in the knowledge, skills and expertise of our entire animal care team.”

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