Making a real difference for the lives of thousands of native animals doesn’t require a zoology degree. According to the manager of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, Petra Harris, what is required is passion.

It’s this passion that’s helped Harris and her partner Greg to go from being employees at Bonorong, to acquiring it and then to developing it into something more. It’s also this passion and dedication to her job that has seen Harris recognised with a nomination for The Commonwealth Bank’s Australian of the Day prize.

Wild recently spoke with Harris to discover more about her life and work in wildlife rescue and care.

Can you tell us a little about the sanctuary to begin with?

Bonorong is a sanctuary with a difference. We are not like your average zoo or even many other wildlife sanctuaries. For a start, we only have animals here that need to be here, our main aim is to get as many animals as we can back to the wild where they belong. Each animal that needs to stay at Bonorong has their own individual story and reason for needing our help. There may be things that are preventing them from being released and there are also some animals that have been here since before we took over. We make sure that all our permanent residents undergo meticulous assessments to make sure they are 100 per cent happy to be in our care. Bonorong has been operating for 33 years, but we have truly transformed it into the sanctuary it is today since we took over in July 2009.

Another special thing about Bonorong is our commitment to our underlying values and beliefs. Our passion for education and conservation drives us forward each and everyday. A little saying we like to use is “we do well by doing good”. While we do rely on our visitors as a major source of funding we pride ourselves in providing an experience where our animals come first.

How long have you been at Bonorong?

I’ve been working at the sanctuary for nine years now. My partner Greg and I started working for the previous owners before eventually taking over from them in 2009. It had been Greg’s dream to buy the sanctuary since he was about seven years old. His mum fondly tells me every time they took Greg to Bonorong as a child he would tell them that he would own the place one day (and look what has happened!)

Neither Greg nor I have a uni degree, which seems to shock some people after they hear about everything we have achieved in our lives so far. We have both been around animals since we could walk and this has lead to us both having an incredible amount of experience in hands-on situations with a whole range of critters. Combine that experience with a profound love and infatuation for wildlife and conservation and the story goes from there! It is nice to show people that you don’t need a piece of paper to get the job of your dreams. However, we have both worked very hard to get where we are and it is my personal belief that if you are passionate and dedicated about what you want to do, then you can get anywhere in life.

What other projects are you working on?

Bonorong is a rapidly growing business and we usually have a whole range of things on the go at once, it can be hard to keep up! We run Tasmania’s main 24-hour wildlife rescue service, which is completely funded by guests visiting the sanctuary. This is a huge undertaking and since its inception in 2010 we have taken around 20,000 calls for injured and orphaned wildlife around the state. When I sit back and actually think about the number of animals we have saved through our rescue program, it is extremely heartwarming and rewarding. 

The largest project we are currently working on is the formation of the state’s first wildlife hospital. This project is finally starting to bear fruit after three years of fundraising and the past six months caught up in red tape. We’re hoping that, as of January, we’ll have a new building dedicated to treating native species, a little like the one Healesville Sanctuary operates in Victoria. At the moment any native animal that needs treatment will go to a local vet, and while we have some incredibly supportive vets that help us with wildlife, those veterinarian practices are set up primarily for domestic animals. It’s never ideal taking a wild animal into an environment where there are dogs and cats (which are essentially their major predators).

Once the wildlife hospital is in operation there will finally be a clinic that is solely dedicated for the treatment of wildlife. The clinic will also be available for any registered wildlife carers around the state to bring in animals that they may need rehabilitating. With the amount of injured and orphaned wildlife that currently come in to care (mainly due to road incidents) this clinic is going to pivotal for conservation outcomes in Tasmania.

Other conservation projects we currently have on the go include:

  • Running a quarantine facility and breeding program for the Tasmanian Tree Frog (which is now considered to be endangered)
  • Implementation of Tasmania’s first Seabird Rehabilitation Facility with a saltwater pool (specifically designed for penguins and other pelagic species)
  • Undertaking the first carnivorous marsupial population study in the remote Tarkine wilderness.

On top of all of this we also run another business called Tarkine Trails. This is an amazing guided walking experience that we operate in the pristine rainforest of Tasmania’s northwest. This is now a ‘sister business’ to Bonorong and ties in with our wildlife experiences via our Tassie Devil research initiative.

How do people in your area become involved with caring for wildlife?

Firstly, anyone who’s interested in volunteering should get in contact with us directly. There are two main options for people: to join our wildlife rescue program, or become a registered wildlife carer.

To become one of our rescue volunteers you must attend a training session that we run here at the sanctuary. This training is essential for participants to complete before they can begin rescuing. Once you have completed the training you are then put in to a database system and will begin receiving messages about animals that need rescuing and transporting in your area.

If you are more interested in becoming a wildlife carer then we can give you the information pack you need to get started. This will include attending a ‘joey care’ course and registering your details with the Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment.

We also run internships at the Sanctuary that will provide participants with a nationally-recognised qualification in Animal Studies.