Sometimes art imitates life. In the movie, Sweet November, actress Charlize Theron plays a sensitive animal lover who rescues two puppies from a laboratory, nurtures them and then tearfully says good-bye when she finds them a good home.

The role was not a huge stretch for the talented actor. In real life, Charlize’s extraordinary beauty is matched only by her compassion and desire to make the world a better place for animals.

The confident, down-to-earth star of such movies as The Cider House Rules, The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, credits her upbringing for  her love of animals. A native of South Africa, Theron’s family lived on a farm outside of Johannesburg, where her mother, Gerda, instilled in her a sense of respect and caring for creatures great and small.

“My mother is a huge animal lover. Pretty much everything that ended up on our farm was rescued because they were not wanted, even the fish,” says Charlize. So how does one rescue fish in South Africa, you might ask? Charlize explains,

“My mother owned a road construction company. She did a job to build a road, which they wanted to go right through a lake. The owner said to just throw dirt in the lake but my mother saw that it was filled with fish so she drained the lake, then she caught all the fish and moved them to these two huge reservoirs she built.”

Living in South Africa gave Charlize the opportunity to help foster some more exotic animals too, like the two abandoned ostrich hatchlings her mother brought home. “They lived on the farm with us until we put them back into the wild,” says Charlize.

Though she has what she calls “an equal admiration and respect for all wildlife”, Charlize, 26, confesses she has a soft spot for dogs. As a child, she lived with as many as 14 rescued dogs at one time. Now she shares her L.A. home with four adopted canines, Tucker, a mixed breed, Orson, a Great Dane/Dalmation, and two cocker spaniels, Denver and Delilah. Each has an incredible story. Denver and Delilah both came from rescued mothers who were pregnant at the time, Tucker needed a home when his guardian joined the Peace Corps and moved to Thailand, and Orson perhaps was luckiest of all. While shooting in September of 2000 in a town close to Naples, Italy, Charlize noticed the big stray following her. “He was living in the streets but we took a fancy to each other and I decided to bring him home,” she explains.

Charlize feels her animal family brings balance to her life and even takes them with her to movie shoots, if possible. Remote locations make it difficult to travel with Tucker and Orson but she always takes the smaller dogs, Denver and Delilah. “There’s nothing like opening the trailor door and having those two little faces to greet you,” she says affectionately.

Charlize’s love for dogs and her strong beliefs regarding adoption led to her involvement in a multi-faceted campaign against puppy mills last year. Initiated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the effort includes an undercover investigation into the abuse of animals at a puppy mill in Kansas. After seeing the video footage, which shows injured and sick dogs in deplorable living conditions, Charlize felt compelled to help.

“I’ve always been an advocate for adoption and when I saw this film, it broke my heart.”

She agreed to narrate the six-minute video, which was sent to a variety of sources including pet stores and college campuses, and is shown on PETA’s website, helppuppies.com.  The investigation led to two sets of cruelty to animal charges against the puppy mill, one in Kansas and one in Arizona, where the operation quietly moved after the investigation.

Lisa Lange, Director of Policy and Communications with PETA, gives much of the credit to Charlize.

“Charlize’s involvement in this campaign has helped enormously. Anytime you can get this kind of attention, it helps move agencies to act. When someone like Charlize comes to the rescue and puts her strength and energy behind it, it can move mountains,” says a grateful Lange.

To help address the issue of puppy mills more extensively, Charlize subsequently signed a letter to shopping mall managers across the U.S. asking them to rent out their space to animal adoption agencies rather than pet stores who sell animals. Alternatively, she would like the stores to work out an arrangement with local animal shelters so that people can adopt animals through the retail outlets and thereby reduce the number of euthanasias each year. Awareness, says Charlize, is the key.

“I think a lot of people very innocently buy these animals and they have no idea where they come from,” says the frustrated actor. “These days, if you want something particular, if you want a pup, if you want a Labrador, if you want anything, you can go and rescue the specific animal you want. It’s become so easy.”

It was through her work with PETA that Charlize learned of another animal crisis closer to her native home. Baixinha, a 25-year-old endangered Black Rhino who lives on a ranch outside of Johannesburg, had been virtually sold by her owner, American David Laylin, to a big-game hunter who wanted to shoot her for a trophy. Laylin decided to sell the chance to kill the rhino after his attempts to breed her with an aging bull failed, leaving him no source of income from the animal. Baixinha, whose name means “pretty one”, is tame and fond of humans and would pose no challenge in this “canned hunt” situation.

The conscientious Charlize spoke and wrote to Laylin (see sidebar) to discourage him from sending the Black Rhino to her death. She also talked about it publicly when she visited South Africa on tour. So far, it seems, Laylin has listened to the appeals. Baixinha, who was scheduled to be shot in August of 2001, is still alive as this issue goes to print.

[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Charlize’s letter and the pleas of several other animal advocates, Laylin was eventually persuaded to send Baixinha to the SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary, where she was moved in the summer of 2002. She died surrounded by her loving keepers on November 11, 2003.]

Not surprisingly, Charlize finds the whole idea of canned hunts appalling.

“Wildlife has become an industry in South Africa. They farm these animals, throw them in cages and then have rich Norwegians or Americans come and shoot them for a trophy. It’s sad we’re living in a world where people can actually do that with a clear conscience. I understand that there’s poverty and that this nation has survived for so many years doing things like this but I think that now is the time to reeducate these people and show them other means to feed their families than to farm animals for canned hunts.”

It’s this kind of global concern for animals that leads Charlize to get involved in other efforts as well. Efforts like the Emergency Relief Program, an initiative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. IFAW’s relief program came to international attention when it headed up the rescue and rehabilitation operation for 20,000 African penguins who were the victims of an oil spill off the coast of Capetown in June of last year. Charlize recently worked on a video for the organization that will make its debut at an upcoming corporate fundraising auction.

On the U.S. front, Charlize supports the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary as well as various other animal and humanitarian organizations. Her substantial charitable work was recognized last year when PETA presented her with their 2001 Humanitarian Award, partially for her refusal to wear real fur in her movies. For all her efforts and subsequent recognition, Charlize is as modest as they come.

“It’s hard to accept an award for something that should just be everyday life. It’s very sweet and very nice and I was very honored but it’s just common sense.”  Her reaction doesn’t surprise PETA’s Lange.

“Charlize is understated and incredibly strong. She’s doesn’t do this for herself. She does it because she cares so much. I think she sets a tremendous precedent when she shows the world that you can be revered and be wonderful at heart.”

I do believe there is a chain that connects us all and for a better world, we need to look after the animal kingdom. In the long run, we’re the ones who are going to make the decisions. We need to take responsibility for that.”

It’s a responsibility Charlize Theron takes very seriously.

 

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