When Sharon Portelli FCPA isn't working with small businesses, she spends her time works with reptiles at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
Sharon Portelli has found mixing with humans and other animals is an exhilarating experience.
Despite her farming background, Sharon Portelli FCPA always dreaded snakes, but her decade-long stint at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, in central New South Wales, has morphed her terror into a newfound respect for the reptiles.
“Since I’ve been a volunteer I’ve learnt to appreciate the snake’s place in the ecosystem a bit more,” she concedes.
And while slithery reptiles still evoke a twinge of fear, there’s also a sense of fun bringing them out for the visitor meet and greet at the zoo.
“As people arrive and are lining up, we walk around and let them touch the lizards and snakes – it’s interesting to see all the different reactions you get,” Portelli says.
With her love of wildlife (snakes aside), the opportunity to interact with a spectacular variety of wild animals is the perfect offset to her day job working with small businesses through her ESP Accounting practice.
“It’s funny, when zoo visitors ask what you do and you say you’re an accountant, they say, well this is a bit different! But that’s the whole point – it gives you a break from thinking about the business,” she explains.
“You’re out there to enjoy the zoo and help other people enjoy it, too.”
Donating her time whenever possible – mostly on weekends for about five to 10 hours a month – Portelli is involved with animal handling and conducts two-hour early morning group walks around the zoo. It’s given her the chance to hone the people skills she has developed through her career.
“You get lots of different people, different nationalities and different backgrounds, so my job is about trying to read those people so they can get the best out of the zoo.
“It’s nice interacting with people in a different manner because an animal breaks down barriers. If you are walking your dog someone will always come along and pat your dog, but they won’t come and say hello to you without it.”
And, unexpectedly, she’s learned never to underestimate her audience. Knowledgeable school children constantly keep her on her toes.
“Because kids watch so many pay-TV animal shows now it’s amazing what they come out with,” she says.
As well as her zoo work, Portelli also has an an impressive list of volunteer roles more related to her profession, including serving on CPA Australia’s Representative Council and five years as a NSW Divisional Councillor (with one year as president).
A past board member of the Dubbo Chamber of Commerce, in 2014 she won the chamber’s Business Leader Award. When it comes to the zoo, she’s also in for the long haul.
“There are a few people who have got up to 30 or 35 years of volunteering, so it would be nice to get a 30-year badge down the track.”
Portelli is also motivated by her desire to see Dubbo thrive. The zoo, and the tourists it attracts, are central to this.
“We have years of drought and then we have floods, so trying to build the community so it’s sustainable going forward, that’s important for me,” she explains.
A 300-hectare open-range zoo, Taronga Western Plains in Dubbo, NSW, has more than 700 animals, and it is the only place in Australia where you can see African elephants.
Visitors can even snooze at the zoo. As well as cabins there is the upmarket Zoofari Lodge, where guests can look straight out to the animal enclosures.
“That’s created a big new buzz,” Portelli says. “They have a Roar and Snore [ticket] where people can camp as well – so there are different levels.”
Portelli is one of about 100 volunteers who take on a variety of tasks, from working in the information centre to bush regeneration or animal handling, and providing guided tours.
The zoo’s approach, particularly with its wildlife rehabilitation and breeding programs for animals extinct in the wild, such as the black rhino, strongly align with Portelli’s values.
“People can see animals they may never see anywhere else; that’s the message I give when I’m out there. As habitats for animals get destroyed by us, it’s becoming more important that we have these places otherwise some of those creatures will disappear. Some already have.”
Read more about Taronga Zoo
This article is from the March 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK