Most of the guests oohed and aahed over the live animals — a Chinese alligator, a red macaw, South African penguins and more adorableness — at Thursday’s gala for the Smithsonian National Zoo.
But not Harrison Ford. The actor and passionate conservationist doesn’t do cute.
“My favorite animal is the human being, because it has the capacity to change the world in a way that other animals do not,” he said in an interview before the dinner. “And it has the capacity to protect all animals, not just the cute ones.”
The party was held at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery — the first fundraiser ever held off zoo grounds — and featured a dozen animal “ambassadors” (the ones relaxed enough to allow people to fawn and take selfies) and one very big movie star.
Ford, 75, received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his lifelong work on behalf of global conservation. (Betty White also received the award for her work on behalf of animal welfare, but the 95-year-old actress was unable to make the trip from California to accept it.)
Ford just got back from Africa, where he and his family watched the annual wildebeest migration, during which more than a million of the animals traverse Tanzania and Kenya in search of food and water.
“This is the uncutest animal in the world,” he said. “They look like a collection of spare parts. What I’m looking at is not whether the animal is beautiful or not. I’m looking at the raw, visceral power of nature.”
Growing up, Ford wanted to be a forest ranger but got sidelined by that movie thing, which worked out pretty well for him. (He holds the record for starring in the most successful movies in Hollywood.)
It also left him plenty of down time for his two passions: aviation and nature. He has served on the board of Conservation International for more than 25 years and has been rewarded for his efforts: There’s a California spider named after him, “Calponia harrisonfordi,” and a Central American ant, “Pheidole harrisonfordi.”
And it was clear that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the issue.
“We need a functional, prospering nature in order to survive on this planet,” he said. While it’s easy to single out endangered species — especially the cutest mammals — Ford believes that it’s impossible to pick and choose because of the sophistication and interdependence of biodiversity around the globe.
“For me, the complexity of nature is proof of the existence of what serves me as a god,” he explained. “I admit that there are many gods in the world, and I’m happy that everybody has found something to believe in above themselves and organize some kind of morality around. But nature is my god, yes.”
For the most part, the guest of honor avoided politics but admitted to Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton in a brief presentation during the pre-dinner VIP reception that he was terribly worried about one issue.
“I’m scared to death about the denial of science,” said Ford. “Science is real. Science is the most real thing in our world, other than nature. I’m hoping we’ll all get back to a place where we can really understand that science is tested knowledge.”
Serious stuff, but the rest of the party was playful and upbeat. The theme was “Monkey Business,” although there were, alas, no actual monkeys in attendance. More than 500 “homo sapiens and animals” posed with Ford, the live animals and a fake giant panda. Guess which photos ended up on Instagram?
The party raised $950,000 for the zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute.