When actor Charlotte Ross accepted the role of Detective Connie McDowell on ABC’s critically acclaimed series, NYPD Blue, she worried that viewers wouldn’t find her character credible. After all, the beautiful and petite blonde stereotype fits more closely with a “Charlie’s Angels”-style format than with the streetwise drama she calls NY. But Charlotte Ross is no new kid on the Hollywood block. With more than 15 years of acting experience under her holster, including starring roles in series such as “Beggars and Choosers”, “Trinity” and the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”, Charlotte has proven she can tough it out with the best of them. Still, she says, the role really is all an act.
“I couldn’t be more different than my character, Connie. You never see her smile. When I’m at home with my dogs, I’m a totally different person,” explains the actor.
No argument there. When Charlotte, 34, is with her animals, she even looks like a different person: softer, sweeter, and completely at home. It’s the space where she feels really comfortable, as she readily admits.
“Animals have always had a huge influence in my life and one of the many reasons is simply the grounding effect they have on me. Growing up, I had a couple of different shelter dogs. I remember having an overall feeling that I didn’t fit in with the kind of world where I was growing up. My dog was my best friend and I could see in my dog love and fear and insecurity and thankfulness and the rainbow of what I deem as human traits. That had a profound effect on me.”
Raised in Winnetka, Illinois, Charlotte’s affinity for animals stuck with her as she moved at age 17 to Los Angeles, where she landed a soap opera role almost immediately. A student with less than stellar grades and attendance, Charlotte’s passion and commitment for acting surprised even her. With forty pages of dialogue to read every day and call times of 5:00 a.m., “I was never late and I never needed cue cards to remember my lines,” says the actor. Her talent and commitment were rewarded with two Emmy Award nominations for “Days of our Lives”.
It wasn’t long before Charlotte committed herself to another of her passions, animal welfare. Inspired by Jane Goodall’s book, Charlotte joined a couple of animal organizations in her early 20s. That’s when the mail started arriving. “The more I read about various animal issues, the more aware and involved I became. I think that’s true of most people. Right now, lobbyists are fighting the use of gestation crates for pigs and I truly think if people knew what they were and how the pigs live, they wouldn’t put up with it for a second.”
Charlotte is referring to the 2’ x 7’ metal crates employed by factory farms to breed pigs. According to Farm Sanctuary, an organization that lobbies on behalf of farm animals, a breeding sow spends her entire four-month pregnancy in such confinement, unable to lie down fully or turn around. Just before the piglets are born, the sow is moved to a slightly larger crate so she can feed the babies. Immediately after her piglets are removed at three weeks old, she is reimpregnated and returned to a smaller crate. This goes on for about four years until the sow can no longer reproduce.
“Some people have a fear that if you get rid of gestation crates, then you’re going to get rid of all meat products,” explains Charlotte, a vegetarian. “But that’s not the point. If people are going to eat meat, that’s fine, but let the pigs see grass for once in their lives. It’s just about treating animals with more dignity,” says Charlotte. It’s this kind of forthrightness that earned Charlotte an advocacy award at this year’s Farm Sanctuary Gala in Beverley Hills. She credits the organization and its founders, Lorri and Gene Bauston, for making her aware of the issues surrounding farm animals, and particularly factory farming, and for taking risks to bring cases of blatant animal abuse to light and to justice.
Outside the farm animal realm, Charlotte has also advocated on behalf of animals bred solely for fur. In a revealing ad for the well-known anti-fur campaign run by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Charlotte bared more than her soul to bring attention to the issue. It was personally challenging, says the actor. “I’ve never done nudity in TV or film because I’m very shy and it’s something I feel strongly about. But I’ve always liked those PETA ads and I felt honored when they asked me. Fur is just so popular in fashion right now, it’s ridiculous.”
Charlotte also liked the idea of posing with a bunny and the caption “I’d rather show my buns than wear fur”, a play on words she finds particularly amusing since her show is famous for its derriere cameos.
Charlotte went on to talk about the ad, which currently graces taxi tops in New York and Washington, D.C., on the talk show circuit, a move which is so like Charlotte, says Lisa Lange, V.P. of Communications for PETA.
“This is not just a flash in the pan for Charlotte,” says Lisa. “It’s her life and I think she sets a really great example. She’s sexy, beautiful, smart, strong and she’s also sensitive and compassionate. She appeals to so many people in such a positive way and it’s tremendously helpful to the work we do. Animals are being positively affected because Charlotte has decided to take an active role in promoting their rights.”
Charlotte’s canine family would agree. She rescued Katy, her Pekinese, from a facility that was ultimately shut down. Now 11 years old, Katy lost her eye several years ago while playing with Alex, a rambunctious mixed breed that Charlotte reluctantly had to place in a new home. (“She really needed to be an only dog.”) Now Katy shares their canyon home with Taco, a stray the actor rescued Puerto Rico about six years ago.
“I was just in shock about how many homeless, dying and dead dogs there were in the streets,” she explains. “I was shooting a movie and had only Sunday off. I’d rent a car and go around and feed these homeless packs of dogs. Then, on my last Sunday, I came upon these kids throwing rocks at two street dogs. I put the dogs in my back seat and drove away, not really knowing what I was going to do”.
Charlotte arranged to get the dogs de-wormed and vaccinated in preparation to fly back to L.A. Just before she left, one of the assistant directors on the film decided to take one of the pair home to her family in Oregon. That left Charlotte with Taco, as he came to be known. His short life in the streets of Puerto Rico had taken its toll. Charlotte was surprised to find out that the sad, elderly dog she had adopted was only about a year old. It didn’t take long for love and the basic necessities of life to metamorphasize Taco into a different dog, both emotionally and physically.
“He looks like a walking stuffed animal,” Charlotte says affectionately. “He’s so thankful and playful and he looks like a purebred Jack Russell! He’s a testament to the beauty inside and how happiness can change an animal physically. He’s just the perfect example of why shelter dogs are the best!”
With her canines’ histories, she has taken both Katy and Taco to a chiropractor for adjustments. “Some people might think I’m crazy but I really believe it helped them. It helps humans so why wouldn’t it help animals?” She also played a musical tape for Taco that her chiropractor gave her to help the new dog settle in.
In addition to her responsibilities at home and her advocacy work for animal rights organizations, Charlotte still finds time to volunteer every month or so at Casa Canine, a shelter that saves and finds homes for small dogs on “death row”. She’ll also participate in a fashion show fundraiser for Actors and Others for Animals.
On rare occasions, the actor feels she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Like the time in the late 1990s, when as a volunteer to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA), she decided to look into fostering. Soon after, a German Shepherd mixed breed and her eight newborn puppies moved in.
“Briefly I thought, ‘oh I’ve gone too far’, but I set them up in one of the larger bedrooms with a connecting bathroom and put newspaper everywhere. I played George Winston for ‘Ma’, as I called her and the kids every day. At one point, I had to go out of town for 24 hours to be a bridesmaid and the person who watched them left the gate open. There was ‘poo’ all over my entire house,” she laughs. “I got so attached to those puppies, I would go every other day to visit them when they went back to the shelter. I was determined that each and every one would get adopted, and that’s what happened. But I was still so worried about Ma because she wasn’t the prettiest dog in the world and I didn’t know how old she was.” Charlotte’s fears dissolved when long-time animal lover Bob Barker took Ma on “The Price is Right” to advertise her plight and an older couple came forward to adopt her. “I’m just the biggest fan of Bob Barker,” says Charlotte. Charlotte’s efforts meant a lot to the spcaLA, according to Deborah Sutton, Director of Volunteer Services. “When I consider the attributes of the ideal volunteer, two qualities stand out above all others; commitment and the genuine desire to do whatever is necessary to insure the well being of our shelter animals,” says Debra. “Charlotte met and exceeded those ideals.”
With a demanding shooting schedule and a roster full of animal welfare activities, Charlotte doesn’t have a lot of free time these days. When she does, however, she enjoys Tae Bo, hiking and singing. In fact, the professionally trained singer is working on a folk-style album right now, co-writing or writing songs on her own. And like most passionate people, she has dreams. “I would love to play Jane Goodall in a movie. She’s just a huge inspiration for me and I’m sure for most people. And I’ve always dreamed of having a no-kill shelter or running a number of them.”
In the meantime, Charlotte continues to do what she can to further the cause of animals. “I have a lot to be thankful for in my life and the more successful I am in the entertainment business, the more I want to give back. As long as there are unwanted animals being put down and being bred and killed inhumanely, I’m going to work for their rights. I just believe strongly in it.”