Betty White Challenge raises thousands of dollars for central Iowa animal shelters and rescues

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

The late actress and comedian Betty White was well-known for her roles on screen, but her passion for animals' welfare has prompted fans around the world to honor her memory by opening their pocketbooks.

To celebrate what would have been the TV star and animal activist's 100th birthday on Monday, Jan. 17, local shelters across the country have received donations in honor of the #BettyWhiteChallenge, many without even publicizing the effort.

Animal rescues and shelters in central Iowa have been sent tens of thousands of dollars. In the Des Moines area, the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and AHeinz57 Pet Rescue and Transport both reported receiving more than $30,000 each. The Ames Animal Shelter had collected $7,500, the Boone Humane Society received more than $5,000, and the Story County Animal Shelter received another $1,600.

"I didn't know she was that she was that big of an animal advocate and then I started researching it," Boone Humane Society volunteer and board member Kim Adams told the Ames Tribune. "(She said) she kept working so she can support the animals."

More:Betty White's 'Celebration' features her last video message to fans, in theaters  for 100th birthday

"It truly is amazing that one woman can cause such a stir in so many millions of people's hearts," AHeinz57's CEO, Amy Heinz, added. "I felt really weird about having a fundraiser about her death — that seemed wrong to me at first — but now, thinking of the bigger picture of what has transpired ... it's really put focus on shelter animals."

The Ames Animal Shelter received an influx in donations as part of the #BettyWhiteChallenge Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.

White's love of animals started in early childhood, according to NBC's TODAY show, as she helped care for the animals her parents took in from owners unable to care for them amid the Great Depression. She went on to create the "The Pet Set" TV show in the 1970s, fundraised for numerous animal-related organizations and took an interest in wildlife conservation.

While White may not have been best-known for her advocacy for animals, Ames Animal Control Supervisor Ron Edwards met the beloved actress at the opening of the Long Beach, California's Companion Animal Village, of which White was a major benefactor. Edwards said he was living in California at the time and got the chance to join White and other advocates for a lunch at the center's opening.

"She was such an amazing person and she just loved animals so much," he said. "I hope she knows what happened after she passed."

More:A naked snow angel for the Betty White Challenge raises money for Burlington animal shelter

Central Iowa's shelter and rescue officials say most of the funds raised will go to support their animals' medical care. At the Boone Humane Society, one cat will be getting much-needed dental work, Adams said. A puppy being surrendered to AHeinz57 will undergo surgery on its front leg, where a growth plate was likely destroyed.

Shelters also offer free spay and neuter programs. The city's budget for the Ames Animal Shelter covers the basic needs, Edwards said, while donations help the shelter go above and beyond.

"A lot of them (the donations) are life-saving," Edwards said. "If we're taking an animal that has been, say, hit by a car, and we're taking it to an emergency vet hospital to determine what can be done to help save a life, we have to be able to have the funds to do that."

More:The #BettyWhiteChallenge: Fans honor late actress on the day she would have turned 100

The donations come as shelters continue to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic. Heinz said they continue to operate with 25% fewer donations than in pre-pandemic times. The rescue closed its boarding facility that largely helped fund its shelter after the pandemic ground traveling nearly to a halt.

Sarah Fritz, a volunteer of the Ames Animal Shelter, pets a cat Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.

Though the challenge only called donation equivalent to the cost of a foot-long sandwich, Edwards said many went above and beyond for the late Golden Girl. And some have even suggested the #BettyWhiteChallenge become an annual event, as January's a typically slow month for donations, Adams said.

Adams said animal shelters are more reliant on shelter homes now, expanding their ability to care for animals because of community support. Heinz said their shelter is almost fully funded through donations.

The influx in the wake of White's death has included a large number of small donations, as fans were challenged to donate $5 to their nearest shelter. Adams said the Boone organization received donations from more than 200 people this week.

"I just want people to know that that $5 donation really can make a difference."

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.