Lions, Bengal tigers and Malaysian honey bears, oh my!

Instead of leaving the black-and-white world of Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Julie Hines Mabus left Mississippi and entered the exotic world behind the gates of the Audubon Zoo.

She is volunteer extraordinaire working more than 20 hours a week at what she calls a magic opportunity. Julie, a Mississippi native, attended last year’s Zoo-To-Do, and she says the experience changed her life.

“I saw a beautiful woman with a white cockatoo on her arm talking to all the guests,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’”

She’d always considered New Orleans a second home, so with her new passion to be a part of the zoo, she made the decision to make New Orleans her permanent home.

She moved into a new apartment and then met with Llewellyn Everage, Audubon Zoo’s adult volunteer coordinator, to learn about her options.

“She told me I could be an ambassador and work with people out front, visiting with them and talking about the animals, or I could work behind the scenes doing husbandry, which is very hands-on,” Julie says. “I wanted to do it all!”

She began learning about the different areas of the zoo so she could be an ambassador. Then, when the intensive 12-week training for behind-the-scenes work started, she was first in line.

“I love helping with the animals,” she says. “Even mucking out their cages is fabulous because you get to work so closely with them.”

Her volunteer efforts don’t stop at education and husbandry: She’s offered her talents as a horticulturist to restore and create several raised beds on the zoo’s campus. And she claims to have the best compost pile in the parish.

She’s also serving on the upcoming Whitney Zoo–To-Do fundraising committee.

 “I’ve procured some fabulous things for the silent auction: a handmade bed by Shaun Wilkerson and some great vacations and trips,” she says. “I’m a former politician’s wife, and I know how to ask for things.”

Volunteering has been a good experience for Julie, and she’s hoping it might eventually lead to a job at the zoo, but with a CPA and MBA, this vibrant and intelligent woman will have no problem when she decides to move on to her next life adventure.

“Volunteering at the zoo has been great for me,” she says. “I have a place to go, and the staff here truly knows how to make their volunteers feel important.”

She’s experienced many magic moments during her time at the zoo from working on the Discovery Walk and holding a python to helping with the majestic elephants, but one moment stands out.

“In the morning, when the zookeeper enters the Asia Domain house and turns on the light, you can see that the Bengal tigers know it’s time to eat and you see them nuzzle their noses against their cages waiting to be fed. It is simply breathtaking.”

Whitney Zoo-to-Do for Kids is this Friday, April 29, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the adults-only Whitney Zoo-To-Do is next Friday, May 6, from 8 p.m. to midnight.

Shine a Light with Pamela Marquis illuminates the stories of those people who need a little recognition for the many ways they make New Orleans the best place in the world to live.