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February 12, 2013

It's a Jungle Out There: An Interview with Survivor Winner Jenna Morasca

The winner of Survivor: The Amazon describes her efforts to help animals survive and thrive

All Animals magazine, March/April 2013

  • As spokesperson for The HSUS's disaster program and Animal Rescue team, Jenna Morasca urges people to have a plan to help their pets survive disasters. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

On Survivor: The Amazon, Jenna Morasca endured grueling weeks and a variety of challenges to win the reality show’s top prize. Off-screen, the Pittsburgh native has long applied her true grit to a different purpose: “I remember giving my allowance money to the humane society when I was in elementary school and … getting into fights with people over animals,” she says.

Post-Survivor, Morasca has used her celebrity to lobby against horse slaughter, encourage consumers not to buy fur, and promote shelter pets—a cause even closer to her heart after she and boyfriend Ethan Zohn adopted a middle-aged pit bull-mastiff mix from a Brooklyn shelter last summer. Morasca recently took on the role of HSUS spokeswoman, advocating disaster preparedness and rescue for animals in crisis: “I have so much respect … for the people who are part of the HSUS Animal Rescue Team. I’m just so in awe of them,” she says. “I would love to go on one of the rescues.”

In this edited interview with senior editor Julie Falconer, Morasca describes her efforts to help animals survive—and thrive.

What motivated you to adopt an older pit bull mix?

Initially, I was thinking about fostering a dog. Ethan isn’t as much of a dog person as I am, so I thought that would be a good way to introduce him to the dog world that I’m so obsessed with. Since I’ve been talking about getting a dog for pretty much as long as I’ve been talking to the press, I knew there would probably be some sort of media coverage when we did get a dog. I thought that would be a good opportunity to make some important points about adoption.

I specifically wanted to get an older dog. I thought that would be nice to get that message out because so many people adopt puppies and there are so many wonderful older dogs with so much life left to live. I specifically asked for a pit bull or a pit bull mix because I know that shelters have a lot of trouble getting pit bulls adopted, and I feel like this breed has a bad reputation and they’re misunderstood, kind of like me. People think we’re one way and we’re not. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to dispel any myths about the breed.

Did Ethan fall in love with her?

Yes. It’s really hard not to love her. She’s probably the sweetest dog I’ve ever had my entire life, and I’ve had a lot of dogs.  We named her Bobbi after Bob Marley because she’s so mellow. She’s one of the best things that have happened to me in the past five years.

I know she must have had a very difficult life. She’s got a lot of scars, and it looks like her bottom lip was completely bit through at one point. I think she may have been a bait dog, and it definitely looks like she’s had puppies. When I first got her, when you would raise your hand in the slightest, even half an inch, she would cower and run into the bathroom.

Before I got her, I did a lot of research on pit bulls. While I know she’d never be a vicious dog, I know that you have to be a responsible pet owner with any large, powerful breed. Ken Foster sent me I’m a Good Dog, a wonderful book about pit bulls. Another great book I read was Pit Stops by Michelle Sathe. It was really nice to know other people love this breed as much as I do. I can’t imagine having another breed now.

You were co-host of ABC’s Everyday Health; do you feel pets play an important role in people’s health?

Definitely. I read that people with dogs live longer and are healthier. You can easily see why that’s possible. It forces you to get outside. It’s also bringing humor and unconditional love into your life. There’s been plenty of times when I’ve had awful days, and then the dog will do something completely ridiculous or snuggle with you, and you just remember how precious life is.

One of my favorite shows that we got to do for Everyday Health was about service dogs. I was so excited because I kept pushing all the time: “We need to do a show on animals.” In that episode we got to see how people with seizure disorders or sleep disorders or anxiety disorders were helpless before they had these dogs. You really come to respect the bigger part that animals play in our world.

What animal issues are you currently working on?

I’m an avid horseback rider, so that’s always something I look to help with—to advocate for the proper treatment of horses and against horse slaughter. It’s so horrible what we’re doing to these majestic creatures. Adoption has also always been huge for me. Every time I do a photo shoot, I try to bring in local animals who need to be adopted and shoot with them just to try to get them publicity. From what I hear, all the animals in the shoots were put in homes after the magazines came out. So I know it’s been successful, which makes me happy.

I failed my college biology class because I wouldn’t dissect a rat. After I won Survivor, I made that public, and they now offer a virtual dissection alternative. Now that I have Bobbi, I want to do more advocacy against dogfighting. That’s what’s wonderful about exploring new things with animals. You think you have your issues, and then you stumble upon a breed or run into a situation, and that’s the new thing you’re on the warpath for. That’s why it’s always good to keep exploring.

Do you have any other advice for new animal advocates?

Anybody who loves animals, there’s an issue you can help on. Sometimes it’s overwhelming or you can’t always give a lot of money, but there’s so many other ways to help out—just giving a bag of dog food to your local shelter or volunteering or buying cruelty-free makeup. At the back of Wayne Pacelle’s book [The Bond], he has all these ways you can get involved, things that I didn’t even think of. Some of them are so easy and things you can do with your family to pass along that gene of being philanthropic toward animals.

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