Profile: Speaking for the Animals

Profile: Speaking for the Animals

Zoo’s PR manager connects people with animals.

By Michele Long

Photo caption: Kara Bussabarger and 2-year-old Scotty, the elephant.

Many people with hectic jobs consider their office to be a zoo. But for Toastmaster Kara Bussabarger, her office really is a zoo! As public relations manager and spokesperson for the Louisville Zoo – the state zoo of Kentucky – Bussabarger spends each day not only meeting with the media and community members but also with a variety of wild animals.

“I can travel the world from Africa to the Arctic just by stepping out of my office and taking a stroll,” Bussabarger says. “It is a thrilling environment to work in. I am surrounded by some of the most magnificent and endangered animals on our planet.”

Her communication skills are put to full use by pitching stories to reporters, producing and hosting television shows, and giving presentations and media interviews. She also gets to do things that most people envy, like hug a baby giraffe, kiss an elephant and babysit a trio of baby siamangs.

Bussabarger credits Toastmasters for helping her land her unique job and is grateful that a previous job supervisor introduced her to the organization.

Improving Her Skills
After her first Toastmasters meeting seven years ago, Bussabarger was hooked. A member of the Sunny Side Toastmasters in New Albany, Indiana, she has seen a marked difference in her confidence and presentation abilities since joining.

Debbie Sebree, communications director at the Louisville Zoo, was responsible for hiring Bussabarger. “She made an excellent impression in her interview,” Sebree says. “She was well-spoken, enthusiastic without being over-the-top, made eye contact and answered questions in a very honest and straightforward way. She did not seem nervous, and gave the impression that she was ready, willing and able to take on any task or challenge.”

Even more important, Bussabarger has proved Sebree’s decision to be the right one, shining in her role as a communicator and an ambassador for the zoo.

“Whenever she is making a presentation on our behalf, I know with certainty that it will be done in an engaging and professional manner,” says Sebree.

Again, Bussabarger credits Toastmasters with a big assist.

“Toastmasters has not only given me the tools to help me be a better speaker, but also has made me into a better listener, persuader and poised leader,” she says.

Interviews and Orangutans
Bussabarger’s job certainly is out of the ordinary. She uses her communication and leadership skills for tasks ranging from alerting the media about the arrival of Priscilla the Porcupine at the zoo (Priscilla is a specialized tree-dwelling species) to organizing the zoo’s Orangutan Awareness Weekend for 14,000 people.

And then there’s the party planning. Bussabarger recently spearheaded the 50th birthday celebration for Timmy – the oldest male gorilla in North America. The venerable creature was given quite the shindig: Flanked by three female gorillas, Timmy was presented with a 300-pound ice sculpture “cake” and a stack of fruits to munch on.

In March, Bussabarger was at it again, throwing a birthday party for 2-year-old Scotty, the elephant. The 5-foot-tall, 1,800-pounder got a birthday gift – a large plastic ball that he kicked and rolled around – and ate a special meal of cake, hay, apples and carrots.

Speaking of Scotty, the big boy scored some national trunk time last year when he was featured in People magazine. The publication did a spread on “Zoo Superstars,” and Scotty got his own page, with a photo of him and his mom Mikki, and a quote from Bussabarger (“He’s adorable, like a little cork”).

For Bussabarger, it’s all part of a job she loves.

“Not many people can say they have planned a big bash for some of the most revered animals in the world,” she notes. “It is a pretty special and unique job.”

Bussabarger says her Toastmasters training prepares her to deal with the frenzied pace and unpredictable nature of her work.

“My job is like one long Table Topic,” she quips. “One call from the media could change my entire schedule, and I have to be ready to think on my feet and solve each and every issue at hand.”

Just the logistics themselves are daunting: The Louisvile Zoo exhibits more than 1,300 animals, from wallabees and yellow-hooded blackbirds to Sumatran tigers and Cuban crocodiles. As the zoo’s point person for the media, Bussabarger sends out press releases announcing the deaths of such beloved zoo animals as Frank, a 44-year-old gorilla, and Sinda, a 17-year-old tiger. Other times, her media advisories are heavy on medical and scientific information. Earlier this year, Bussabarger was sending out progress reports (along with her own photos) on the health of Bakari, a 6-foot-2 baby giraffe who had a rough birth but is now doing well.

But often the animal news from the Louisville Zoo are upbeat: This summer, Bussabarger was fielding numerous calls from U.S. media outlets about Gerry, a duckling belonging to a rare species. Gerry had been hatched from an egg found by a zoo worker after the animal’s mother apparently abandoned it.

Steve Wing, general curator at the Louisville Zoo, says working with Bussabarger on media projects has been memorable.

“She has a natural enthusiasm for everything she does at the zoo, and it shows,” he says. “I have been doing this for almost three decades, and you do not often find people who embrace the camera or the microphone like she does.”

Bussabarger has served in a variety of roles for her Sunny Side Toastmasters club, including president and vice president education, and has competed and advanced in various speech competitions.

Through Toastmasters, she has also learned she loves to tell stories. As the zoo’s spokesperson and public relations manager, Bussabarger tells compelling stories of hope to a diverse audience.

“I believe where there is life, there are stories. At the Louisville Zoo, that is definitely the case – it is a place bubbling full of life every day,” she says. “Through Toastmasters, I believe I have become a successful storyteller.”

But Bussabarger isn’t one to sit on her laurels. She says her personal mission is to “bring about love for all people and animals around me.” She adds, however, that she’s always searching to see if there is more she can do, and how she can improve herself – both in her job at the zoo and in daily life.

“My career goal is to be successful in every task and challenge presented to me,” she says. “The only difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is that little extra – and Toastmasters has helped me grasp that little extra.”

Michele Long is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky, and a past intern at the Louisville Zoo. Reach her at