Ambassador of Animals
Jane Ballentine, M.A. ’91
Cameras roll for the live media event at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Marty the porcupine crawls among the fall decorations atop a table as his handler stands gently holding his tail. All seems perfect until Jane Ballentine, M.A. ’91, the zoo’s director of public relations, gets an urgent text message from her coworker: “Tell Marty to stop eating the decorations.”
She and the handler halt Marty’s feast—but not before he has gnawed a few large holes in the pumpkin.
Ballentine chalks it up as another adventure that’s just part of the job. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to work at the zoo,” she says. Her duties include garnering pre-event publicity, arranging media tours and doing the occasional TV appearance (including the likes of Good Morning America and The Tonight Show).
Yet much of her work is behind the scenes. “When I ask a colleague to speak to a reporter, I want them to be the expert,” she says. “I’m there to make sure they’re comfortable or to help them remember key points.”
She also shapes and shares the zoo’s stories—even the sad ones. Last year, Badu the lioness was pregnant with the first lion cubs to be born at the zoo. Ballentine drafted a press release in preparation for the birth but arrived one morning to alarming news: Two healthy cubs had been born, but Badu was in distress. Veterinarians then delivered a pair of stillborn cubs via C-section, and Badu died four days later.
“It was such a high to know she was going to have cubs and then this happened,” she says. “And here’s the hard part: I had to put all of it down in writing.”
“You get bit by the bug and you might go away for a few years, but then you miss everything about the zoo. So you go back and are hooked for life.”
In time, the focus eventually shifted to a celebration of the surviving lion cubs with the help of media and community support, says Ballentine, who first landed a job at the zoo in April 1991 during her final semester at UB. She served as its public relations coordinator for the next three years, followed by 13 years at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and a brief tenure with an environmental group before returning to the Maryland Zoo in 2008.
“We call it something similar to malaria,” she says with a laugh. “You get bit by the bug and you might go away for a few years, but then you miss everything about the zoo. So you go back and are hooked for life.”