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The Los Angeles Times - May 28, 2007
Gretchen Wyler, 75; Broadway actress became animal activist
By Claire Noland, Times Staff Writer
Gretchen Wyler, an actress who left a successful Broadway musical career to dedicate her efforts to protecting animals and eventually became an outspoken critic of the Los Angeles Zoo, has died. She was 75.
Wyler died Sunday at her home in Camarillo after a long battle with breast cancer, her friend and fellow activist Catherine Doyle said.
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, praised her commitment as an animal rights advocate.
"She was a person of remarkable vigor and vision," Pacelle said Sunday. "And it's the loss of a major figure in the modern animal protection movement."
A singer, dancer and actress in such Broadway hits as "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Damn Yankees" and "Bye Bye Birdie," Wyler found a new passion in the late 1960s after visiting a dog pound near her home in Warwick, N.Y.
Appalled by the filthy, inhumane conditions she saw there, Wyler decided to take action: She quit eating meat, gave away her fur coats and opened a new animal shelter. She kept acting, but most of her time was spent educating the public about animal rights.
"Her idea," Pacelle said, "was never to preach to the choir but to broaden the message and try to reach mainstream America."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made her its first female board member in 1971 (though she was later dropped in a dispute with the board). She sat on the board of directors for the Fund for Animals and was vice chairwoman until 1991, when she founded the animal rights group the Ark Trust. In 2002 the Ark Trust merged with the Humane Society of the United States, and she served as vice president of the organization's Hollywood office until retiring last year.
Wyler also created the Genesis Awards, which since 1986 have recognized the media and entertainment industries for incorporating animal protection themes into their work. The films "Fast Food Nation," "Happy Feet" and "Charlotte's Web" were among the honorees at this year's event, which featured actor James Cromwell and comedian Bill Maher.
Working tirelessly on myriad animal rights issues, Wyler aimed to shut down horse-slaughtering factories, end the use of steel-jaw leg hole traps, prohibit the use of animal testing in research and development, and improve the treatment of animals in zoos and circuses � anything that reflected her motto: "Animals should have the right to run if they have legs, swim if they have fins and fly if they have wings."
Her passionate views sometimes ruffled the feathers of Los Angeles Zoo officials, whom she criticized from her position on the L.A. Zoo directors advisory committee.
"Her heart's in the right place, but she doesn't really know the animals' biology," Manuel Mollinedo, who was zoo director from 1995 to 2002, said last year. "She tends to look at animals more from an emotional perspective."
She had come a long way from Oklahoma City, where she was born Gretchen Patricia Wienecke on Feb. 16, 1932. A dancer, she made her professional debut in St. Louis in 1950 in a ballet ensemble.
When she landed a spot in the chorus of "Where's Charley?" in 1951, she met Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," who encouraged her to change her last name to Wyler.
She performed in eight Broadway productions, including "Sly Fox" with George C. Scott.
She moved to Los Angeles along with a traveling production of that show in 1979 and never left, adding TV, stage and minor film roles to her increasingly busy animal activism.
One of Wyler's last crusades was on behalf of Ruby, the L.A. Zoo's female African elephant. Wyler was an outspoken critic of the zoo's decision four years ago to move Ruby to Knoxville, Tenn. She was one of the first voices in the city to claim that Ruby's move was inhumane because female elephants are social creatures in the wild and the move would sever Ruby's longtime connection with one of the zoo's other female elephants, Gita.
Ruby was returned to the L.A. Zoo in 2004, and Wyler took up lobbying the zoo to move her to an elephant sanctuary.
Two weeks ago, nearly a year after Gita died, the zoo moved Ruby to a sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Wyler "lived to know that Ruby was being moved to a sanctuary," said Sue Blackmore of the Humane Society's Hollywood office.
Wyler, who was divorced with no children, is survived by a sister, Peggy Hanson of Pacific Palisades, and a brother, Lou Wienecke of Granbary, Texas. Services are pending.
Actress and Animal Advocate Gretchen Wyler Dies at 75
LOS ANGELES (May 27, 2007) � The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) today announced that Gretchen Wyler, Broadway actress and animal advocate, died this morning from complications stemming from her battle with breast cancer. She was 75, and had retired last year as vice president of the Hollywood office of The HSUS.
"The humane movement has lost one of its brightest stars," said HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle. "Gretchen Wyler devoted 40 intense years to protecting animals, and the cause gained so much ground during that time because of her extraordinary achievements and advocacy -- in the media, in law-making, and in raising public consciousness."
Wyler created the Genesis Awards, which honors the media and entertainment industry for shining a spotlight on animal cruelty. The awards program began in 1986, and this year marked the 21st anniversary of the celebration. Known as the nation�s premier consciousness-raiser for animal protection issues, the awards are bestowed by a host of celebrity presenters such as James Cromwell, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, Kelsey Grammer, Alicia Silverstone, Wendie Malick, David Hyde-Pierce, Dennis Franz and Sidney Poitier, among others. This year, the first Gretchen Wyler Award was bestowed on Paul McCartney, for a lifetime of activism for animals.
Wyler�s theatrical career spanned 50 years and encompassed eight Broadway shows, including the original "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Damn Yankees," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Sly Fox" with George C. Scott. She was a regular on the CBS television series "On Our Own" a season on "Dallas" and many television guest-starring roles, including "Friends," "Judging Amy," "Providence" and "Stark Raving Mad." She had featured roles in such films as "Private Benjamin" and "The Marrying Man," and an array of club and concert appearances, from headlining at the Copacabana in New York City in the 1960s to singing at Carnegie Hall in June of 1991 as part of Cole Porter's 100th Birthday Party, recreating the songs she introduced as the singing-dancing lead in his "Silk Stockings."
Wyler�s devotion to animals consumed most of her energy in recent decades. She began her crusade in 1966 after a visit to the animal shelter in Warwick, N.Y. The conditions there shocked her and she vowed to change them. Two years later, the new shelter opened its doors. Wyler managed the shelter for 10 years. In the 1970s she became the first woman member of the ASPCA�s board of directors. She also served as vice chairwoman of the board of the Fund for Animals from 1971 to 1991.
She formed The Ark Trust in 1991 and ran the organization until it joined forces with The HSUS in 2002. Wyler was named Vice President of The HSUS� Hollywood Office and she remained in that office until her retirement in 2006. Gretchen�s work at the Hollywood Office and with the Genesis Awards will continue with her chosen successor Beverly Kaskey.
"This was a woman with a giant and irrepressible spirit," said Dr. David Wiebers, chairman of the board of The HSUS. "She was a pioneer in the field of animal protection, and she touched countless people with her passion and enthusiasm. The Genesis Awards is just one of the many legacies she leaves."
In lieu of flowers, Gretchen asked that donations can be sent to the Hollywood office of The Humane Society of the United States. The HSUS last year also created the Gretchen Wyler Legacy Fund, and donations and bequests may be directed to The HSUS for that fund, which supports the work of the Hollywood Office and The Genesis Awards.
"I have lost a dear friend and a mentor, and the animals have lost one of their most passionate and tireless advocates," said Beverly Kaskey, director of the Hollywood Office of The HSUS.
Gretchen was born in Oklahoma City in 1932. She is survived by two siblings, Peggy Hanson of Pacific Palisades, Calif. and Lou Wienecke of Granbary, Texas.
The family will announce plans for a memorial service in the coming days.
For more biographical information on Wyler, go to
gretchenwyler.com. For more information on the Genesis Awards, go to
The Humane Society of the United States is the nation�s largest animal protection organization � backed by 10 million Americans, or one of every 30. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education, and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty -- On the web at
The Hollywood Office of The Humane Society of the United States
(818) 501 2275
Interested in taking action online to help animals? Then join our online community and sign up for our Humane Action Network. Go to
A Different Kind of Starring Role for Actress
By Carla Hall, Times Staff Writer
March 18, 2006
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."
He's more circumspect about her animal rights work. "She's obviously very sincere in her beliefs. She's been complimentary about some aspects of the zoo, and we disagree with her about elephants," he says.
Wyler's life story sounds like something out of one of the musicals on her resume. She left her hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., at 18 with dreams of dancing on Broadway. Cast in a musical, "Where's Charley?" � which starred Ray Bolger, the scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz" � she took his advice to change her last name from Wienecke.
"I said, 'Mr. Bolger, maybe you could think of a name for me.' He came in the next night and said, 'Guess what? Hello, Gretchen Wyler!' "
She came to Los Angeles in 1979 with a stage production of "Sly Fox," starring George C. Scott, and stayed, hoping to land her own TV series.
That didn't happen, but she got plenty of guest work on TV and stage and had a small part in the movie "Private Benjamin." She continued to balance acting work and animal activism.
In 1994, Wyler started to criticize a zoo renovation plan that included more money for the front entrance than housing for chimpanzees and orangutans.
"She called and said, 'I think the master plan is all wrong,' " recalls Renee Weitzer, an aide to then-City Council President John Ferraro, whose district included the zoo.
Weitzer, now chief of staff for the district's current councilman, Tom LaBonge, credits Wyler with getting Ferraro involved in redirecting funds to build new exhibits for the chimpanzees and orangutans. "She's not nuts," said Weitzer. "She gets it. She believes strongly, but she knows it's not a perfect world."
Wyler says she has never wanted "all or nothing" in the crusade for animal rights. She does not believe in so-called no-kill shelters and thinks that euthanasia is better for an animal than being turned away.
Nor does she proselytize among her friends � but she can be a nudge. She recalls the time her friend Zsa Zsa Gabor came backstage after a show.
"She said, 'Oh, Gretchen, I love what you're doing for animals, because I love animals too.' I said to her, 'Zsa Zsa, you love dogs and cats. Don't you know you're standing there in 25 dead foxes?' She sort of laughed � and stopped wearing fur."