As we gear up for one of our favorite local charity events, I had the good fortune to meet and tour the Audubon Zoo with the annual Whitney Zoo-To-Do‘s Director of Events, Ellen Buckley. A New Orleans native through and through, Ellen gave me a insider’s look at what it’s like to spend your day among the visitors and animals. As we watched the tents and lights getting set up for Friday’s fete we talked work goals and what her day to day duties are as the planner of one of the city’s most famous philanthropic events.
The yearly party under the oaks at the Zoo is much more than a fundraiser, offering guests an evening of fine dining, dancing and people watching on the scenic grounds of Audubon Zoo. The adults-only, black tie event features a mouth-watering array of cuisine from 70 local eateries and more than 40 specialty and full-service bars serving premium cocktails. Guests also will be entertained by the high-energy sounds of Downtown Fever. Plus, you can feel great about attending as proceeds from the 2015 Zoo-To-Do events will help Audubon Zoo’s orangutans swing into their new home in Asian Domain!
Full Name: Ellen Buckley
Title: Director of Zoo-To-Do events at Audubon Nature Institute
Tell us about working for Audubon Zoo.
Audubon plays such an important role in his city, managing all of the parks we use every day and providing the city with the opportunity to experience animals and wildlife they might never get to see in its natural habitat while also playing a crucial role in conservation. I love the people I work with because they are all really invested in the work we do. There are some days when I sit up in my office and it feels like just a regular work day, then I hear the whooping of the siamangs, and I remember that my job is different from others.
What drew you to the organization?
Since I was young, I wanted to work at the Zoo. I wanted to be a veterinarian and asked my mom to get me a subscription of zoological magazines. Now, I get dizzy at the sight of blood, so veterinary school was out of the question, but I never lost my desire to work with animals. Somehow I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to combine my love of event planning with my love of animals. It’s so easy to raise money for an organization when you see how much the curators and keepers adore the animals they care for or the excitement of children when they get to see their favorite animal up close for the first time.
Is there a typical day for you?
I love that there really isn’t a typical day. There are some days where I spend most of the day on the phone asking people for donations so that we can produce our events, but then there are other days when I’m out on the grounds of the Zoo with decorators thinking of ways that we can create a beautiful and memorable event. I think that most days we spend our time finding creative solutions! As a fundraiser, we have a limited budget to throw a very large event. We’re so dependent on the kindness of local vendors to donate their product from lumber to office supplies. And all of them have such fondness for the Zoo, that often times it doesn’t take more than one ask to have their help.
What sets this fundraiser apart from others?
The sheer size of the event is always what amazes me. Whitney Zoo-To-Do has live music in three areas of the event, close to 70 restaurants and 50 beverage bars and over 4,000 guests in attendance. The event really celebrates everything that people in New Orleans love…food, drink, music and community. The Zoo and the city have a symbiotic relationship. This event actually grew out of the need to rebuild the zoo into something that the city could be proud of. When the Zoo was in deplorable condition in the 70s, a group of local women rallied together to raise money to restore it through an event held at the Marriott called the Beastly Ball. From this grew Zoo-To-Do! I don’t know one person in the city that doesn’t have a fond memory of going to the Zoo. And where else do you get to see the Zoo at nighttime and all dressed up.
What’s your favorite thing about working at Audubon Zoo?
If I ever need a pick-me-up, I can walk outside and within a few feet I’m standing in front of the sun bears.
What’s your favorite animal or exhibit?
If you would have asked me this question a year ago, I would have had a different answer. But recently I had the opportunity to tour a family in the rhinoceros barn and I fell in love! I’ve always thought of rhinos as these giant, scary creatures, but despite their power, I learned that they are actually really shy and pretty docile. I felt so fortunate to have that experience. I think that’s why the Zoo is so important. It changes our perception and understanding of animals.
Who are some of the people you most admire and why?
I think the people I admire the most are the ones that see the positive in every situation. It can be easy to get bogged down with negative things that happen. My older sister is my inspiration. She is 31 years old and was diagnosed with brain cancer, yet I’ve never seen her say “why me?” She is so strong and just wants to make the best out of every day. She’ll do anything and take any chance, because why not? I really admire that.
Describe your personal style in three words:
Classic, eclectic, and colorful. I studied art history in college and always saw fashion as another form of artwork just like sculpture or paintings. In studying different artwork from around the world I found the textiles and patterns in the artwork of different cultures to be so interesting and I love experimenting with different looks especially in fabric and jewelry. I also love watching old movies from the 30s and 40s to see all of the classic styles of the past. The shoes are always my favorite! I think I’m still trying to nail down my style because it changes all the time depending on what I find beautiful.
This post originally appeared on A-Little-Happy.com, a website I founded that served as a site to inspire creatives & entrepreneurs to obtain a better work-life balance. The site garnered over 78,000 views. It has since been discontinued.