Marcia Frank had always wanted to be a veterinarian, but in 1954, when she graduated college with a degree in chemistry, women were discouraged from applying to veterinary schools.

It would be a decidedly long and circuitous route before Frank would come full circle and realize her dream of being among the world’s animals.

In the meantime, she worked as a chemist for DuPont, married and raised seven children. She had no idea that wouldn’t be the last of her brood, and hardly the end of her raising babies. However, the second time around, the babies would be a great deal larger and quite a bit hairier.

“I was an empty-nester when I picked up the newspaper in 1982 and saw a class being advertised for behind-the-scenes volunteers at the Audubon Zoo,” said Frank, now 85. “It was a half-day training class, and I was eager to sign up. I had no idea, at the age of 50, that this would be the beginning of the next 35 years of my life.”

As a New York transplant, back in 1967, Frank had become familiar with the zoo as she and her husband, with three kids in tow, embarked on a day-trip to see all of the animals.

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Marcia Frank at the Audubon Zoo with Feliz, center, and Saibu in 1989

And as a volunteer 15 years later, she found herself in the newly minted research department and was assigned to observe the lemurs and the orangutans. Her love for the latter was instantaneous.

“There’s something about orangutans,” Frank said. “They are extremely intelligent, curious and immensely talented. They will take anything apart, very carefully. The only problem is they have no interest in putting it back together.”

As a species, they also don’t have much interest in raising their young in captivity.

In the wild, adult females have a baby only every seven to eight years, as they ordinarily spend that long raising each baby in the trees of their native habitat of Borneo or Sumatra.

But in the zoo, many females have no interest in raising and nurturing their own offspring. She became a surrogate mother to these hapless baby orangutans, whose mothers were ignoring them.

“I bottle-fed them, diapered them, nurtured them and loved them,” Frank said.

“These days, I still visit Feliz, one of the orangutans I raised, who is now 28 … but now it must be through plexiglass, for the overall good of the species.”

Indeed, policies have changed radically since Frank was first a volunteer in the 1980s.

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Marcia Frank, with Feliz, has been a volunteer for more than 30 years at the primate exhibit at the Audubon Zoo.

“Our methods are always improving to ensure the welfare and overall well-being of animals,” said Courtney Eparvier, curator of primates and sea lions at The Audubon Zoo. “Since the animals are more endangered now, our programs had to evolve to ensure animals had the best chance of breeding to increase numbers for their species, as animals under human care are the back-up population. It’s been proven that hand-raised animals usually end up having a challenging time successfully producing offspring.”

Protocol under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums dictates that foster rearing of primates, if absolutely needed, is done by another mother of the same breed, perhaps at another zoo — but not by a human surrogate.

“Philosophies have changed,” said Llewellyn Everage, director of Volunteer and Internship Resources at Audubon Zoo. “We focus on what’s best for the animals.”

Frank's close contact with the orangutans over many years inspired her to make numerous trips to Borneo and Sumatra, beginning in 1991. Observing the animals in the wild prompted her to become a devout conservationist, as she sees primate habitats dwindling, threatening many of the species with extinction.

Her beautiful hand-made quilts, featuring images of her beloved orangutans, are continually donated to conservation groups to raise funds to save these animals.

“These days, I drive myself from Slidell once a week and roam the zoo grounds bringing blueberries, which the animals think is a delicacy,” Frank said. “And, I spend time answering questions from the zoo’s guests and from groups of schoolchildren who frequent the zoo.”

“There’s no way we could find another Marcia,” Everage said. “Her experience is invaluable, her personal view of the world is priceless, and she’s essential to engaging our community in areas we view as critical.”

“I would pay a million dollars to do what I’ve done here,” Frank said.

From the woman who just celebrated 35 years as a volunteer and whose email address is “orangufan," that pretty much sums it up.