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A Different Kind of Starring Role for Actress

March 18, 2006|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

She was a Broadway musical star, swathed in fur, eating a steak a day.

But Gretchen Wyler's worldview changed in the late 1960s after a visit to a local dog pound near her country home in Warwick, N.Y. That chance encounter provided the inspiration for what would be the actress' second-greatest passion: animal rights activism.

Within a few years of that visit, Wyler shed five furs -- a mink coat, mink stole, chinchilla cape, full-length silver fox and a nutria-lined coat -- and started a more humane animal shelter in Warwick. (The shelter animals got the furs to use as bedding.)

Eventually, she became a vegan and a board member of several animal rights groups. In the last few years she has transformed a leadership role in the Hollywood office of the Humane Society of the United States into a high-profile spot and become something of an irritant to the Los Angeles Zoo.

"I don't think anyone should have a right to see a wild animal up close," says Wyler, who extols the virtues of housing captive elephants on preserves, rather than in zoo enclosures. She lambastes zoo Director John Lewis for his recent comment on the difficulty of viewing elephants in a very large space. "Oh, my God, this is not about people, it's about animals!" she says.

It seems as if nothing can dim her energy. Not age (Wyler is 74), not a recurrence of breast cancer and drug therapy. She plans to retire in June as vice president of the Hollywood office of the Humane Society, but tonight she'll preside -- as she always has -- over the Genesis Awards, a ceremony she started to spotlight animal rights issues.

Over a vegan dinner at the Beverly Hilton for the 20th annual event, celebrity presenters including Ed Begley Jr., Zooey Deschanel, Jorja Fox, Lauren Holly, Amy Smart and Tori Spelling are scheduled to hand out 20 brass plaques to honor TV shows and movies, documentaries, news programs, and newspapers and magazines. The show will be taped to air May 6 on Animal Planet.

She insists that the ceremony is unlike the self-congratulatory award shows that crop up at this time of the year in Hollywood.

"We're about an issue, not about craft," she says. "Two million people are going to see this and hear about 20 issues."

Wyler is one of a group of high-profile Hollywood actresses of un certain age who, as they grew too old for the entertainment industry's notions of what is bankable, became animal welfare advocates. The list includes Doris Day, Brigitte Bardot, Betty White and Tippi Hedren.

"Doris stopped wearing fur in '72 publicly," Wyler says. "And Brigitte was on the ice floes in the '60s protesting the clubbing of the baby seals. Those are the two women in my generation who inspired me."

Wyler has channeled the flamboyance she wielded on stage in such vehicles as "Bye Bye, Birdie" and "Guys and Dolls" into her animal rights work, galvanizing admiring activists and alienating zoo officials and sympathizers.

She prides herself on taking a belligerent stance and dismisses the term "animal welfare" as too neutral. She prefers "animal rights" and adds: "I live to see the day when animals have the right to run if they have legs, have the right to swim if they have fins, have the right to fly if they have wings."

All that sometimes puts Wyler at odds with the people who run the Los Angeles Zoo, which is a city department.

"Her heart's in the right place, but she doesn't really know the animals' biology," says Manuel Mollinedo, head of the zoo from 1995 to 2002 and now the San Francisco Zoo's leader. "She tends to look at animals more from an emotional perspective."

Nonetheless, Mollinedo appointed her to the L.A. Zoo's Animal Management Advisory Committee in the mid-'90s. And he credited her -- with a plaque -- as one of several figures who successfully lobbied for a state-of-the-art chimpanzee exhibit.

"She is emotional, but these significant issues need our emotional engagement," says Wayne Pacelle, chief executive and president of the Humane Society. "I don't think there's anything wrong with emotion, as long as it's blended with logical thinking. She's a very smart woman, and she brings a blend of rationality and raw emotion."

No recent issue has polarized the zoo and animal rights activists like the care of the elephants. Wyler has been on the front lines of that fight, demanding more space for the pachyderms and denouncing the zoo for sending one of its females, Ruby, to the Knoxville Zoo in 2003. (Ruby was returned to Los Angeles at the end of 2004.)

L.A. Zoo Director Lewis declined to comment on Wyler.

Tom Mankiewicz is chairman of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., the facility's fundraising arm. He has known Wyler in both her incarnations. "She was a wonderful actress," says Mankiewicz, a television writer who directed Wyler in an episode of the '80s TV show "Hart to Hart."

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