Linda Blair answers her calling to help animals

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Linda Blair

Linda Blair schedules interviews for mid-morning because before then, she explains, “I have to take care of the animals.” She’s referring to the horse, dogs and chickens who share her backyard and home in Burbank, California. But she could easily be making a statement about her life’s work.

The petite actor, who rocketed to stardom in her unforgettable role as Regan MacNeil, the possessed adolescent in The Exorcist, is driven by her desire to help animals.

“I feel compelled to do this. It’s my calling,” says Linda matter-of-factly.

As we speak, four chickens make their way from the yard to the open door and perch on the doorjamb to watch the conversation. Like a proud mother hen, Linda stops to admire them. “They are so incredible. Like most people, I never realized how much personality they have. They’re just so intriguing to me.”

Indeed, the 43-year-old actor has been intrigued by animals as long as she can remember. Her mother, also an animal lover, promoted her daughter’s interests, and the Blair family often included cats, dogs, rabbits, mice and even a skunk at one time. Linda’s greatest passion at the time was horses. Raised in Westport, Connecticut, she started riding not long after she started modeling, at around the age of five.

A fearless and independent child, Linda learned early about the importance of balancing work and career. “My mother made sure I had balance – sailing lessons, swimming, piano, ballet. She would explain that you should save your money to acquire things that were of interest to you. My work, she said, would pay for my riding lessons, or later when I wanted to be a vet, my schooling.”

Before she would even finish high school, however, Linda landed The Exorcist and life would change forever.

While she continued to pursue her successful riding career, she was now ensconced in a demanding acting schedule as well. Linda and her mother made many trips to California while she was promoting The Exorcist. During one visit, she fell in love with her first boyfriend, singer, songwriter and actor, Rick Springfield. They went through difficult times, she says, with her back-to-back television movies and his career waiting for the kickstart that would take him to star status.

The relationship didn’t last but Linda’s career thrived, with movies such as Exorcist II: The Heretic, Sweet Hostage, with Martin Sheen and Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. The wide-eyed, innocent-faced actor often portrayed the victim in her roles and, looking back, is pleased she opened the door for other victims.

“I didn’t set out at 15 years old to be the young controversial actress,” Linda explains. “It was the roles that were handed to me. But I am so proud now to have been involved in movies like Born Innocent, which exposed child abuse and Sarah T, which talked about teenage alcoholism. Now as an adult, working on animal issues, I’m happy to be part of trying to make a difference.”

Indeed the actor is doing more than her fair share. Although she’s always been anti-fur, it was the theft of her Jack Russell terrier, Sheba, from her backyard, that motivated her to get actively involved in animal welfare.

“That’s when I discovered that 2.5 million pets are stolen every year and sold into medical research. The media helped me try to find Sheba but I never saw her again. It was devastating for me because I didn’t think I would have children and she was my baby”.

Through the theft, Linda got involved with the California-based animal rights group Last Chance for Animals, which investigates pet theft rings and works against vivisection. Chris De Rose, who started the group after a dog died in his arms in a laboratory, says Linda has been a real help to the cause.

“I’ve known Linda for 16 years and to this day, I’ve not seen anyone who puts themselves out as much as she does for the animals,” says De Rose. He says Linda’s involvement goes way beyond creating awareness. “When people see Linda at functions and hear how passionate and articulate she is about the issues, they become inspired. She’s so warm and caring and giving. . . a real morale booster”.

In addition to LCA, Linda has lent her particular brand of enthusiasm to causes such as the Shambala Preserve for rescued exotic cats, the anti-seal hunting campaign, PETA, and The Ark Trust’s Genesis Awards. The actor fondly calls the Genesis Awards gala, which celebrates media who highlight animal welfare issues, her Academy Awards.

“To me it’s just the most honorable day,” says Linda. She serves as a celebrity presenter at the Awards and Ark Trust president, Gretchen Wyler, has hopes she’ll become more involved in the future. “She’s so important to us. She’s so bright and she has such passion. If you didn’t have the passion, you wouldn’t stay long.”

Linda’s passion has affected other parts of her life too, including her diet. In 1988, after reading about the growth hormones and antibiotics present in meat, Linda became a vegetarian. “With all the chemicals and pesticides, I just didn’t think it sounded healthy anymore. And then the next year my mother got cancer.”

Linda took her mother’s illness and subsequent death very hard. The year after, in 1995, she participated in the March on Washington for the Animals, an experience she says was filled deep personal emotion.

“My mother was such an animal lover and I was talking to her spirit because I knew she would have been so proud . . .‘we’re in the capitol, Mom, we’re here for the animals’”.

While on the March, she met Gene Bauston of Farm Sanctuary, a group that raises awareness about the concerns of factory farming animals and that lobbies government for more humane slaughterhouse practices. When Linda learned first-hand about the work the charity was doing, she offered to help in a more tangible capacity. And helped she has, according to Lorrie Bauston, Executive Director.

“Linda is a wonderful mixture of compassion and energy and she’s so hard-working and kind, you almost forget you’re talking to a celebrity. She’s always been one of these people who’s had a completely pitch-in attitude, whatever needs doing. And she’s also been a wonderful farm animal mom, adopting rescued chickens and turkeys, too.”

Chickens aren’t the only animals the actor has adopted. Linda’s three dogs have all come from less than ideal circumstances. Sunny, a six-year-old Staffordshire, followed her home when she was out walking in North Hollywood. Frightened at first, Linda says he’s just a “gentle giant” and the “joy of her life”. After three months of unanswered advertising to find his guardians, she finally realized he was home to stay. She says the big dog rescued her emotionally.

“I was really upset when I lost my mother and then my whippet, Peanut, died. I was so sad and angry inside. Sunny rescued my heart.”

Another of her dogs, Riley, a one-and-a-half year old pit bull, came through Pacific Coast Dog Rescue (PCDR), a group she started working with about two years ago. Like many of the dogs at PCDR, Riley was rescued from the streets of Los Angeles. David Roe, who heads up PCDR, is grateful not only for Linda’s help in adopting and fostering dogs but also promoting awareness of the group’s cause.

“Linda helped me with our first fundraiser last year,” says David. “It was held at a restaurant in Hollywood and we had over 300 people show up. The owner said she had never seen it so packed in the ten years she’d been there.”

Like many others, David admires Linda’s down-to-earth approach.  “She’s the most compassionate person towards animals I’ve ever met. She doesn’t just talk it. She’d rather stay home and take care of the animals than go out a lot. She’s the real thing.”

Linda has discovered that adopting and living with multiple dogs can prove difficult at times. As Riley got older, he constantly challenged Sunny for alpha male status. Neutering did little to help the situation so Linda turned to the trainers at California K-9. After intensive training and responsible management on Linda’s part, the two dogs now tolerate each other, a situation she hopes will improve when Riley gets through his “teenage years”.

As if on cue, Riley starts barking excitedly. A squirrel has stopped by to tease the young dog for a few minutes. Linda calls out the door and Riley collects himself and heads into the house.

In addition to the chickens and the dogs, Linda lives with Coco, her 25-year-old thoroughbred horse. She bought the jumper in 1990, after a respite of eight years from riding. She took lessons every day from a member of the British Olympic team and by the third week, the pair were champions at the show. “We were champion reserve at every show after that for a year and a half. And then when we were still on top, we retired. I have no regrets.”

Eventually, the actor says, she’d like to find a place with more land – an agriculturally-zoned property where she can live with her animals and perhaps house a dog rescue in one area and a rescue for farm animals in another. For now, however, Linda is concentrating on her latest projects. She recently authored a book, Going Vegan, which promotes the health benefits of a vegan diet, and is now working on a movie script she hopes to direct and star in. While the controversial subject matter is still confidential, Linda says it’s sort of like Erin Brockovich meets My Best Friend’s Wedding – a charming and eye-opening film that will educate and entertain at the same time.

While she’s getting ready to shop the script around, Linda focuses on taking care of the animals and staying positive, a task made easier through meditation. “It’s not about being selfish. It’s about finding the goodness inside you and working on that to be the best that you can be. The animals have taught me patience, understanding and love. They’ve taught me so much of what I know and so much of what I’m about. I think we’re all born with great compassion, whether it’s towards animals, children or refugees.”

For Linda Blair, compassion has become a way of life. “She’s really a shining example,” says Lorrie Bauston. “She’s concerned about the animals, she’s concerned about people’s health, she’s concerned about everyone. She’s just a very embracing, very loving person.”