Elissa Sursara Interview

Elissa Sursara Interview

Elissa Sursara Interview

Elissa Sursara is an Australian biologist, broadcaster, filmmaker and celebrity conservationist who came into popularity after a number of television and film appearances relating to her environmental work. A former child actress appearing modestly on day time television, Sursara is the celebrity ambassador for a series of animal rights organisations, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the WWF's Earth Hour.

Question: Can you talk about your career, what do you do now?

Elissa Sursara: I work primarily as a non-profit environmental biologist and conservationist. The majority of my work is focused on the study of different species and ecosystems in order to build reasonable scientific alternatives to their continued fragmentation, and I do this by working with different organisations and scientific groups. I've attracted a giant audience of animal enthusiasts and I've transformed that audience into a community of willing citizen activists. As a spokesperson, I promote different causes, projects and ideas and help build a social and political awareness for the environment as a speaker, writer and contributor.

Question: Are you still acting?

Elissa Sursara: I acted part-time as a child and studied the art briefly in high school. It was a fun endeavour and I haven't completely closed myself off to the idea of returning to the industry in some capacity.

Question: Why did you choose to begin a career in Biology and Conservation?

Elissa Sursara: My heroes as a little girl were Stephen Fry, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall - all advocates for the environment, but in very different ways. I watched them on television, and their advocacy and philosophy encouraged me to find my own outlet. I first became active for animals as a teenager working weekend shifts at a local animal shelter where I washed sheets and mucked cages and developed great relationships with other volunteers, animal behaviorists and veterinarians who began to guide my activism. I learned that the platform for animal rights was comparatively very small, and that the cruel treatment and subordination of animals was so deeply ingrained in our world culture that simply liking dogs was never going to be enough to provide them with a safe environment. I became determined to make my life about the needs of other species, and combined my love of animals with my love of science to begin studies in environmental biology, conservation and bioengineering. I wanted to give back to the environment what humans had taken from it: it's rights, it's needs and its future.

Question: You're a vegan, can you talk about when and why you decided to become a vegan?

Elissa Sursara: When I was fifteen, I was shown undercover footage of farm cows struggling with handlers who were attempting to bring the animals into an area isolated for kosher slaughter. The animals kicked and bellowed, calling to each other for help. Eventually, the handlers used a rod to beat the cows around the legs until they fell, enabling them to drag the cows into a kill zone without resistance. There was no compassion, no empathy, the cruelty was customary and the only value was the profit to be made. I learned that the mistreatment of animals is routine in the agriculture industry, and as an animal lover I couldn't justify the systematic killing of more than a billion living beings for food when a plant-based diet was so accessible.

Question: Whilst at school you were bullied, can you please explain your experience?

Elissa Sursara: I was always a little different to my peers and certainly not like other kids my own age. I spent large portions of time out of school working as an actress, which made developing strong friendships with my classmates almost impossible. I had different interests, different goals and a different schedule to other children, and I suffered socially because of my shy, reserved nature. There were times where I was physically bullied by other students, pushed against walls, scratched and bitten, and locked in dark classrooms, and times where I was emotionally taunted and called awful names. I'd hidden my experience from my family for many years - something I regret - but when the bullying turned physical, my family became aware of the situation and intervened.

Question: Your experience was horrific, how do you think bullying as affected you, in the long term?

Elissa Sursara: My experience has made me a stronger person and it's proved particularly beneficial in my position. Bullying never ends, it just manifests in new ways and I've experienced it tenfold since coming into my role as a public figure. My personal experience with bullying helped me to develop a thick skin, and though I still have my moments, I've learned to carry myself with pride and with confidence and to understand that the hurtfulness of others is a reflection of their character, not mine.

Question: What tips do you have for others who may be currently being bullied, at school?

Elissa Sursara: Reach out and ask for help from an adult you trust, whether it's a parent or a teacher or a neighbor, and remember that it's never your fault, there's nothing wrong with you and there's always something you can do about it.

Question: What is a typical day like, for you?

Elissa Sursara: I spend up to six months of the year working in the field, whether it be with orangutans in the Borneo jungle or with white sharks in Gansbaai, South Africa, and the other six working on a variety of projects for print, television, film, radio and other publications - so each day is quite different. My professional roles compliment each other wonderfully to raise awareness for the environment and promote positive activism and it makes for a very exciting and rewarding lifestyle.

Question: Do you have a website?

Elissa Sursara: People can follow my work and learn more about conservation issues straight from my website. I post current projects, collaborations and important news and information about priority species and habitats, as well as information about my partners, sponsors and associate organisations.

Interview by Brooke Hunter