Star Power

Flip through the channels of a television, radio or the pages of a magazine, and you'll see celebrities touting animal rights: Drew Barrymore urges people not to wear fur; Charlize Theron speaks out against puppy mills; Loretta Swit explains the importance of controlling pet overpopulation.

To see an actor or actress fighting for animal welfare and rights doesn't raise an eyebrow. Many in the entertainment industry are either actively involved or contribute financially to these causes.

But the road to today's activism wasn't built in a day. Often, it required a tragic wake-up call, such as the following:

In 1971, the late actor Richard Basehart was driving with his wife on a busy Los Angeles freeway. Someone in the car just ahead casually threw a puppy out of the window and onto the freeway, killing the dog.

At that moment, the veteran actor and his wife Diane had had enough of standing by while animals are treated cruelly. For an actor, Basehart was reported to be unusually modest, but he had clout. Having starred in more than 50 movies since the 1940s (including "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and "Being There") Basehart decided to parlay his fame into a cause.

The result was an organization called Actors and Others in the Industry for Animals. (Later the name was shortened to Actors and Others for Animals, to reflect the members of the community who have joined.)

Today, the 10,000-strong animal welfare organization has such spokespeople as Loretta Swit, Betty White and Dianne Keaton, who try to raise public awareness about the cruelty of overpopulation. The organization raises money to subsidize spaying/neutering programs, among other programs.

The message that star power could have a positive influence gained strength. Like Basehart, many celebrities got into the act after personally confronting cruelty to animals. That's how it started with actress Gretchen Wyler.

Wyler's career has embraced the theater (including "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings" and "42nd Street"), movies ("Private Benjamin" and "The Marrying Man") and television ("Friends" and "Providence).

Until the late 1960s, she wore fur without a second thought, and didn't give animal welfare any thoughts at all. A trip to a dark, dank shelter in New York exposed her to the cruel realities faced by many dogs and cats.

Gradually, she realized animals of all kinds were commonly mistreated. She began her activism by opening her own shelter and getting involved in animal rights. In 1991, she founded The Ark Trust, an organization dedicated to promoting animal rights internationally.

As part of the battle, The Ark Trust awards members of the news and entertainment media with the Genesis Award. The award is given for raising public consciousness on animal issues. First given in 1986 (under the auspices of the Fund For Animals), the award drew about 150 people to a luncheon. Fifteen years later, the Genesis Award ceremony attracted more than a thousand celebrities and members of the community. Categories cut across the media, from movies ("Instinct" won) to newspaper articles (the San Jose Mercury News won for a series of articles on zoos). This year, the award show was hosted by Judd Nelson ("Suddenly Susan") and Charlotte Ross ("NYPD Blue").

A year after The Ark Trust was founded, the Doris Day Animal League was started by actress Doris Day. A legislative lobbying organization committed to animal rights, the Animal League was matched by a sister organization called the Doris Day Animal Foundation. The foundation also promotes controlling overpopulation through spaying/neutering with its successful annual Spay Day USA.

Wyler says the acting world is in a "fearless time" for animal activism, which has had to fight its way out of a closet to become a mainstream cause. Rather than advising clients away from animal-promoting events, handlers (the people who basically advise actors/actresses where to go and what to say) encourage their participation.

"It delights me to see how handlers won't say, 'Oh God, don't go to that ceremony,'" Wyler says. "In our lifetime, we'll see some real changes."