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Probably before Elizabeth could walk and talk, she had a love for animals. Elizabeth was a little girl who often enjoyed the company of animals more than children her own age. She grew up with animals from the day she was born, literally, when the family got a dog named Monty. Lambs, guinea pigs, tortoises, kittens, and puppies also became trusted friends. Little Elizabeth relished weekend life in the English countryside, where much of her time was spent with animals. It was there that Elizabeth would not allow anyone to kill any of the chickens on her godfather Victor Cazalet’s farm, which must have caused problems during meal planning!

For her fifth birthday, Elizabeth’s godfather Victor Cazalet surprised her with a New Forest pony named Betty. “My happiest moments as a child were riding my Newfoundland pony, Betty, in the woods on 3,000 acres of my godfather’s estate near the village of Crambrook, in Kent,” recalled Elizabeth. “Our family lived in the hunting lodge. I was given the pony when I was three. The very first time I got on her back, she threw me into a patch of stinging nettles.” Elizabeth would be in good company; later the illustrious politician Sir Anthony Eden would also take a tumble on Betty. The accident didn’t keep Elizabeth down who said she “soon became an accomplished horsewoman. I’d ride bareback for hours all over the property.” Elizabeth had some instruction from Peter Cazalet, her beloved godfather’s brother. When not teaching young Elizabeth to ride, Peter was the royal’s racehorse trainer.

“I sometimes think I prefer animals to people,” Elizabeth once said. “And I was lucky. My first leading men were dogs and horses.” She wasn’t kidding. Her first film at MGM, Lassie Come Home, saw Elizabeth working alongside the soon-to-be most famous collie in the world. But she rose to stardom in 1944’s National Velvet, a story about a young English girl who trains a horse and rides him to win the Grand National. Each morning Elizabeth would ride her horse, and felt it was one of the few times while under contract to MGM that she had absolute freedom. “When I was very young, the only time I had for myself was when I could get on my horse in the morning before going to the studio. I’d jump for about an hour, and I felt true freedom. It was like my spirit was at one with the trees and the sky and wind, and I could scream or cry or feel whatever I wanted to. Nobody could hear me, and nobody could tell me to shut up. I could do whatever I wanted on that horse, and then I’d have to go and be the puppet.”

But this pure unconditional love that Elizabeth had for animals was exploited by MGM, who used it as a marketing tool to promote their young star. In 1946, Nibbles and Me, a children’s story written and illustrated by thirteen year old Elizabeth was published. The story, originally a school essay, was about her relationship with a chipmunk named Nibbles, which she acquired while on location for Courage of Lassie. Nibbles became a celebrity in his own right; receiving fan mail and was interviewed and photographed for the fan magazines. Nibbles also joined Elizabeth at the studio, where he inevitably make too much noise. Nibbles had a small role in Courage of Lassie, but his scene was cut. In 1960, one of Elizabeth’s pets would finally hit the big time in pictures. Her lap dog named Teresa appeared in BUtterfield 8.

One of Elizabeth’s most unusual pets was a lion cub given to her as a teenager. “The owner of this little cub gave him to me as a present. And I got to take him home with his bottle and formula. He was just adorable. One time he started chewing on my dress, so my mother made me change and she sent the dress to the dry cleaner. Well, they tried to clean it, but they said there was a stain that just wouldn’t come out. What was the stain, they asked my mother. ‘Lion drool,’ she said. Soon thereafter my father made me give the cub back, explaining that we had no business raising a lion!”

Elizabeth’s Taming of the Shrew director, Franco Zeffirelli, also tells a humorous story: “I had flown to Dublin, where she and Richard Burton were filming, to discuss the possibility of our doing a new cinema version of The Taming of the Shrew. I stepped into their hotel suite to find utter pandemonium. Liz had somehow acquired a bush baby, which had not taken to its luxurious imprisonment and had set about rearranging the decor—knocking over vases and lights, ripping the curtains—and had, by the time I arrived, taken refuge near the ceiling of the bathroom, where it was clinging, wide-eyed with fear, to one of the water pipes. Liz’s maid had withdrawn with a scratched face, Richard was angrily trying to get everybody to shut up, and Liz could clearly think of nothing but the rescue of the poor little animal.

“As I entered, the two great stars proceeded to have one of those magnificent rows that made them so alarmingly electric. It was as though they were auditioning for the roles of Katharina and Petruchio. I was nervous but utterly spellbound. Seeing me there, Liz broke off. ‘Forget about this fricking Shakespeare,’ she commanded, ‘and come and help.’”

With all the animals that Elizabeth has loved, her most beloved was her white Maltese named Sugar, a constant companion from a puppy of three months of age until her death in 2005. “I’ve never loved a dog like this in my life,” said Elizabeth in 2004. “It’s amazing. Sometimes I think there’s a person in there.” Continuing, Elizabeth said, “There’s something to say for this kind of love—it’s unconditional.” Sugar went everywhere Elizabeth went, from press tours for her perfumes, to shopping excursions and she became a star in her own right. A Sugar Christmas ornament was even made by Christopher Radko—with proceeds going to AIDS.

After Sugar’s death, Elizabeth fell in love with Daisy, another white Maltese that is actually a descendant of Sugar.


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