"The Golden Girls" has played host to a pig, a piano playing chicken and some ferrets masquerading as minks - and there's nothing Betty White likes better than a furry co-star.
Most actors flinch at playing opposite four-legged scene stealers, but White lobbies to have them on the show."I've tried. Boy, have I tried," White said in an interview, cuddling a small dog with which she would later pose for pictures as a boost for an animal charity.
"The first year we did the show, the girls supposedly were going to raise minks - they were really ferrets. They wouldn't breed and we're all anti-fur in the script and couldn't bear to have anything happen to them so we decided to keep them as pets.
"The second year there was a show with a wonderful performing dog, and last year we did a show with a 600-pound pig. She just came in like a member of the cast, made no mistakes and hit her marks every time.
"Then there was the piano-playing chicken.
"They humor me about once a season."
White - darling ditzy Rose on "Golden Girls" and a demon TV game show player - says her late husband, Allen Ludden, used to kid her that television was her hobby and animals were her career.
She comes by it naturally.
"I was an only child," she said, "and I think my parents were a little disappointed that I didn't have a leg on each corner."
Her family moved from Chicago to California when she was about a year old and she grew up during the depression in Los Angeles.
The family always had pets, usually three dogs - never exotic animals - but sometimes things got out of hand.
"My dad used to make extra money making radios, but nobody had the money to buy radios," she said. "So he used to trade them for dogs. We had 26 dogs. The radios didn't eat but the dogs did. We had kennels in the back yard and finally found a good home for all of them. We didn't sell one of them and eventually we got down again to about three.
"At my age I didn't realize the logistics and I thought it was wonderful."
These days she shares her home with three dogs and a cat. The dogs are Timothy, a black poodle on the small end of the miniature breed; Cricket, a white shelter puppy that has grown into "almost a bichon frise," and Dinah, a retired guide dog that once belonged to blind actor Tom Sullivan.
White explained that Dinah's eyes were not as sharp as they once were and Sullivan needed a new guide dog, planning to keep Dinah as a pet. Dinah, however, was not happy about someone else coming in to do her job.
"She wouldn't eat, she wouldn't run on the beach," White said. "One day I heard a voice which later turned out to be my own, saying, `Tom, would you like me to try her?'
"She had my two dogs to shape up, my housekeeper to break in and she was like a puppy again."
White's love for animals extends well beyond her own pets. She has devoted 17 years of volunteer work to the Morris Animal Foundation of Englewood, Colo., serving as canine vice president and then as president until June 22, 1985.
The foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and she is chairman of its anniversary committee.
"We fund studies into specific health problems of companion animals - dogs, cats and horses - and zoo animals and wildlife," White said.
"We helped develop the parvo virus vaccine, the feline leukemia vaccine, we have done a lot with horses, three studies of alternatives to spaying and neutering.
"I was canine vice president for a long time and then they said, let's make her president so she can play with everybody for three years. Now I'm president emeritus."
White, like other TV series stars, is waiting for the writer's strike to end so she can get back to work.
"`Golden Girls' just gets to be more enjoyable every year," she said. "We're still in the - knock wood - top 10. I've never had such an joyful operation in my life, and I have the long hiatus to devote to my animal work."
She looks back fondly on Sue Ann Nivens, the man-eating "happy homemaker" of the "Mary Tyler Moore" show with the dimpled smile and the instincts of a shark.
"I used to enjoy her so," White said. "Mary was the one who made her work. Mary chose to laugh at Sue Ann. If Mary Richards had decided to resent Sue Ann, the audience would have, too."