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

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Jan. 17 was supposed to be a magical day for America's favorite senior citizen when legendary actress Betty White was set to celebrate her 100th birthday. But the beloved star died peacefully in her sleep at her Brentwood, California home on New Year's Eve.

So fans of "The Golden Girls" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" star are rallying on Jan. 17 to honor Betty White by supporting one of her biggest passions: animal welfare.

White has long been outspoken about animal rights, partnering with multiple organizations in helping animals get adopted or fighting for humane rights. Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, was one of the advocates who partnered with White during her long crusade to help animals.

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For the past 30 years, Bernstein worked alongside White in advocating for animal welfare. But White's work with animals began way before meeting Bernstein.

"Betty White was the real deal," Bernstein told USA TODAY. "She did not come upon animal welfare issues when it became more trendy to do so. She was like that from, well, she would say from birth."

Betty White at a spcaLA shelter in 1975.
Betty White at a spcaLA shelter in 1975.

The lifetime dedication for animal welfare resulted in White receiving the National Humanitarian Medal from American Humane, the first national humane organization founded in the United States. She also received the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in 2017. At the time, she said animals were "what I love most in the world."

It wasn't a secret White adored every animal she encountered. Bernstein mentioned there were a few times White would see a dog and give them a kiss, and she would take any opportunity she could to take a picture with any animal. As sweet as she was with animals, she was also serious about doing anything she could for them.

Tom Dyer, former caretaker of birds at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, said in a Twitter thread that someone paid for 19 penguins and two sea otters from the aquarium to be flown to California after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The donor wanted to be anonymous, but years later, he learned it was White who paid for it.

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When the spcaLA decided to do a live telethon in 2000, the organization decided they should have a host. So, Bernstein called White asking if she'd be interested in the job.

"She said, 'What I think sweetie, is that if you had done this without asking me to host, it would be over. We'd be done,'" Bernstein said.

The telethon was a success, but she added that when they were planning to do it again the following year, White, "got wind of it" and called Bernstein asking if they had fired her. The same thing happened again the year after that. One time, White even auctioned herself off for a dinner for the organization.

Betty White alongside Madeline Bernstein in 2000.
Betty White alongside Madeline Bernstein in 2000.

It's those memories that showed how passionate the late star was for animals. She didn't want people to only focus on certain aspects of animals, her goal was simple: she wanted every animal healthy, happy and loved.

"If you could make people do that, then she was for you," Bernstein said.

How to take the #BettyWhiteChallenge

When White died, people all across social media shared their shock and sadness.

Bernstein said many people "felt cheated" they couldn't celebrate with White, but instead they found a different way to celebrate and honor her memory.

Since the first week of 2022, the #BettyWhiteChallenge has become a trending hashtag throughout social media. The challenge is simple: donate to any local or national animal shelter, rescue or agency in White's name leading up to or on Jan. 17 on what would have been her 100th birthday.

Numerous shelters across the country, like the Tri-County Humane Society in Minnesota, have offered ways to donate in White's memory. Others like the Faithful Friends Animal Society in Delaware said they will match any donation made.

Bernstein said the donations are a great way to honor White, adding that it's the right birthday party for her since it will go to a cause she loved her entire life.

But what would White have to say about the trend?

"She's probably up there laughing," Bernstein said. "She probably wishes she had thought of that."

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The #BettyWhiteChallenge: How fans are honoring the legendary star