11/22/2011 at 04:00 PM EST
Anyone who knows Betty White knows her love of animals
runs deep – and now, the actress wants to ignite that passion in others.
With her new book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo
, the former Golden Girl
shares photos and stories of her animal acquaintances, and hopes to get the word out on the amazing work that zoos do.
"Modern zoos of today are not like the old, old, old zoos," she tells PEOPLE. "Lot of people have the impression they don't like zoos because animals shouldn't be kept in captivity; they should be in their natural habitat. But what they don't realize is that the zoos not only exhibit animals, but they work in that natural habitat to save small populations of endangered species. They save many animals from going extinct."
White, 89, has worked with the Los Angeles Zoo for over 50 years, and has served as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. But her earliest experience at a zoo came long before that.
"I was probably in the womb because my mom and dad felt the same way as I do about them," she says of her first visit. "They taught me not to run from one exhibit to another, but to stay quietly in front of one exhibit long enough to see the interaction between the animals and how much you could learn just by watching them and trying to understand them."
That philosophy has stayed with White throughout her life, and helped her develop the close relationships with animals she features in the book.
"We lost her recently from old age, but my Gita, my elephant, she and I were great and good pals," she says of the pachyderm who passed away in 2006. "Bruno, a 385-pound orangutan, is also a very special friend. I just love them all and I find them all fascinating and I always want to learn more."
And much like her parents, White hopes to impart animal appreciation onto her fans.
"Go to your local zoo, wherever it is, and take a look around. If you see something you like, enjoy it and share it," she says. "And if you see something you don't like, by all means make a point of reporting it. Make the most of what you have in your community. Don't have it be something you drive by; go in and go look."