- Specially-trained koala detection dogs joined rescue teams during and after the catastrophic Australian bushfires to help find the injured marsupials quickly and increase their chance of survival.
- Koalas had a hard time escaping the fires. Because they are slow moving and their first instinct is to climb into the canopy, curl into a ball, and wait, they were often killed or injured by the incredibly intense bushfires.
- Koalas numbers had already dropped significantly in New South Wales due to habitat loss, climate change, drought and disease. The fires exacerbated what was already a precarious situation.
- Eventually, surviving koalas will be released back into the wild, but it will take great care due to their specialized diets, need for social cohorts, and time required to recover from their burns.
“Find koala!” With those two simple words, four-year-old English Springer Spaniel Taylor sprang into action.
She raced across the charred Australian landscape, her handler, professional dog trainer Ryan Tate of Tate Animal Training Enterprises, watched as the brown-and-white dog sniffed from tree to tree.
Then Taylor laid down beneath a scorched eucalyptus. Her signal that a koala huddled unseen somewhere high above.
Tate rewarded Taylor with a toss of her ball, while the team strategized how best to capture the tired marsupial clinging to the scorched trunk. Dog and humans were all part of a massive volunteer effort to rescue koalas struggling to stay alive in the aftermath of fires that swept across huge swaths of Australia from November into February.
New South Wales, a state on Australia’s east coast was arguably the hardest hit, with about 20,000 square miles — an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland — was incinerated, along with an estimated 800 million wild animals.
Koalas were especially affected, with 5,000 of the arboreal herbivorous marsupials — 12% of the state’s population — killed, according to a report for International Fund for Animal Welfare prepared by koala ecologist Stephen Philips. The fires, as horrific as they were, only exacerbated what was already a precarious situation. Over the past two decades, koala numbers dropped by up to two-thirds in New South Wales due to habitat loss, climate change, drought and disease.
The fires added another killing blow.
Hard hit by blazes; then the rescuers came
Slow moving koalas had a hard time outpacing the racing fires. And their first instinct when threatened is to climb high up into the canopy, curl into a ball, and wait for the danger to pass. But the fires were extremely intense. Periods of prolonged, scorching temperatures —up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit — combined with strong winds and other factors to turn many wildfires into deadly infernos that burned hotter than crematoriums. Sometimes, flames engulfed entire trees. Other times, the fires were so deadly that even if the animals left the canopy untouched, the koalas would inhale smoke, overheat, fall, or suffer burns after climbing down.
Another problem: dehydration. Normally, koalas get their water from eating eucalyptus leaves. But the fires, along with extended drought, sapped the leaves’ moisture.
Post-fire rescuers recognized that the more quickly the koalas could receive help, the better their chance of survival.
Which is why canine teams like Tate and Taylor — who could locate koalas faster and more efficiently than human searchers alone — were critical to a successful rescue effort.
Even though Tate was on leave, his wife having just given birth to twins, he couldn’t stay away. “I’d done this style of work before after previous bushfires,” he said. “So when the fires kicked off in critical koala habitat, I offered to help.”
Cheyne Flanagan, the clinical director at the Koala Hospital in New South Wales, the world’s only dedicated full-service veterinary hospital, also jumped at the offer. Having worked with Tate and Taylor before, she knew what they could do.
They’re “two of the best,” she said. “If we had ten people on the search line, Taylor would be worth seven of them.”
Dogs koala-ify as ideal rescuers
For decades, people have used dogs to sniff out everything from explosives to illegal drugs because of canines’ extraordinary sense of smell. In Australia, they’ve turned those talents to finding koalas.
Koalas are notoriously difficult to spot. Their mottled gray fur blends seamlessly with the gray bark of eucalyptus trees, with trunks stretch upwards of 40 meters (130 feet) into a leafy but darkly shaded canopy. There they sit, unmoving for long periods. Many hug the crooks of trees, so they’re easily mistaken for barky bumps. Depending on the habitat, Tate says, it’s “literally not possible to see them.”
“It’s terribly difficult to find them,” agrees long-time koala rescuer and arborist Peter Berecry. “Koalas are not used to having people around, so when they hear you, they may scrunch down or move away. This poor animal, who survived the bushfire and probably had predators chasing it, is in survival mode. It is hunkering down. You can easily miss them.”
But not Taylor. For her and the handful of other koala detection dogs who worked in the fire zones, the koalas were not hidden because, rather than rely on their eyes, these dogs could “see” with their noses.
Canine anatomy offers a big advantage over people. Not only do dogs have a dedicated odor-processing center in their brains that’s 40 times bigger than ours, but they also have an additional odor-sensing organ — the vomeronasal organ — that lets them detect pheromones and other chemical signals. While we have a similar organ, ours is vestigial and has lost most of its functionality.
Dogs breathe differently, too. Rather than inhaling and exhaling through a single nose passage, like we do, they breathe in through the nostrils on the front of their noses and out through the slits on the side. That helps pull in more air, which means more scent molecules to work with, and also lets dogs smell continuously.
By contrast, we flush out scent every time we exhale. Depending on the breed, scientists estimate that dogs detect odors 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans. And, when trained to find specific scents, dogs typically find their targets more quickly and efficiently than human searchers.
Like other koala detection dogs, Taylor was trained on both koala fur, which lets her find live koalas, and their scat, which tells where the marsupials have been. The droppings — tiny black or dark brown “footballs” less than an inch long — are hard to find because they can slip under leaf litter or blend with burnt soil, or be mistaken for scat from other species. None of that hinders the dogs’ sense of smell.
“We’ve definitely found more koalas when Ryan and Taylor were with us,” attests long-time koala rescuer and arborist Peter Berecry. “She can cover a massive amount of ground.”
After the fires, search teams typically moved in groups of 10-15 people. After a safety check and briefing, each team planned a route and then spread out in a wide sweeping line 30 meters (almost 100 feet) apart.
“We’d tell the dogs what we’re looking for, and set off,” Tate explained. Usually, they ran the dogs in 45-minute blocks, then let each rest for 5 to 20 minutes before searching again. The teams kept it up for days, with great success.
“Taylor saved a lot of human hours,” says Cheyne Flanagan of the Koala Hospital.
After the conflagration
The scene and silence within the fire grounds is eerie, Berecry reports. “There’s nothing. No birds. No mosquitoes. Occasionally you might see some bones. It’s just barren.”
“You’re constantly looking up and down,” recalls Flanagan. “Your head is on a swivel.”
“Can you imagine doing that for 20 kilometers of trees? Looking up? It’s really hard!” Berecry explains. “After a few meters, you lose focus. But Taylor would pick up the trail with scat, and could tell us if it was fresh. That got us focused on certain areas, and it buoyed our spirits.”
Locating a koala was only the first step. Next the teams had to get the animal down.
“In a perfect world we would use long telescopic poles with a flag and a small bell [attached] on the end of it,” Tate explains. “We would hold it above the animal and gently persuade it down the tree into a catch bag.”
Sometimes that could be done from the ground, but often the rescuers had to use an expert tree climber like Bercrey.
“Ideally I climb the tree next to the [koala] and annoy them with the rag just enough to not stress them too much,” he says. “But you have to leave a clear path so they can climb straight down.”
The process can be heartbreaking.
“It really affects you,” Berecry told Mongabay. “The koala has been to hell and back. It’s starving. It’s really traumatized. Often, they’re huffing and puffing. They’re exhausted. They just look at you, like ‘Why are you doing this to me?’”
Minimizing stress was key. If they couldn’t catch a koala in 5 to 10 minutes, Flanagan says, they stopped and came back later to reduce stress on the animal.
“These koalas were hanging on to life,” Berecry remembers. “The whole time you’re doing this you’re making ethical calculations in your head. Branches break. If they fall from a high tree, it could kill them. Coupled with the emotion and adrenaline and weeks of looking at the devastation, it takes a toll on you. The quicker we can get them out of the tree, the better.”
Recovery and rehabilitation
And that’s just for starters. Rescued animals need care. Over the course of the fires, the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie took in 50 or 60 koalas from around New South Wales.
Already in poor condition from drought, the traumatized animals often arrived emaciated and dehydrated; many suffered from mild singeing, to full-blown second- or third-degree burns. The harm those injuries could do was exacerbated by dehydration because, when tissue burns, the body needs to send fluid to the burn site to cool it and prevent the heat from destroying more tissue.
Some, even after hope arrived with the tree rescue, were too far gone. The burns could be too severe and the koalas went into organ failure. Others had to be euthanized because their feet were destroyed beyond any possibility of recovery. Koalas need claws and padding to climb.
Sometimes, the growing tissue was burned in such a way that the claws couldn’t grow back. That happened to Lewis, a severely burned koala who went viral in a social media video. “We took his bandages off and it was heartbreaking,” Flanagan said. “He would’ve ended up with stumps for fingers and toes.”
“You can’t do that to an animal,” she said. “If they can’t climb, they can’t eat. And it’s painful. The kindest thing was to put him to sleep.”
But, thanks to the efforts of the hospital and others, many others have recovered or are recovering. The hospital focused on providing good nutrition, Flanagan said, with extra protein to aid healing. Staff minimized contact and only went near the animals to treat them or change the bandages. Typically, active treatment took about four to six weeks, which leads into a long period of healing.
The change is remarkable, Flanagan says. “When they came in, they were shell shocked. But once the healing process started, they turned back into being koalas.”
What’s next? Matching koalas with new forest homes
The surviving koalas will eventually be released back into the wild. But that will take time and great care.
“We want to make sure they’re climbing trees,” Flanagan says. “They have to be fit and ready to go. Depending on the burns, we’re looking at six months minimum.”
In addition, the rescuers need to figure out both where to release the animals, and how to rebuild their society.
Koalas have specialized diets. Their gut microbes are adapted to the particular eucalyptus species found in their home range, which may have largely burned. But they still need to return to a place with similar edible vegetation.
In addition, they have food preferences. Although there are about 900 different eucalyptus species across Australia, koalas are known to eat only about 120 of them — yet not every koala can eat all of these. Typically, Flanagan says, there are about 20 preferred species for koalas in an area, and of those they love perhaps 6 to 8 of them.
Further complicating releases: koalas live in highly-structured societies that will have to be recreated. “They have this pecking order,” Berecry explains.
Koalas are territorial. Each animal lives in a home range that contains everything it needs, meaning a variety of trees for food, shelter and social interaction. Typically, home ranges overlap in specific patterns, with higher-ranking animals, often big males, living close to bigger females, and smaller animals situated further away.
But because so many koalas died, rescuers will have to try to reconstruct this social structure.
“Unfortunately, it’s a problem across country. There are animals with no cohorts,” Flanagan says. “You just can’t put them out in the bush and say see you fellows. It’s very difficult. It’s like a town has had two-thirds of its population wiped out. You have to rebuild with a small number of koalas.”
“We’ve never had such a large devastating wildfire on our hands,” Berecry agrees. “It’s all about preparing for next time so we can more quickly access these fire grounds and have the least impact possible. Developing strong protocols and learning from this experience will be important.”
No doubt, these rescuers still have a lot of work ahead. But thankfully, Tate, Taylor, Flanagan and the rest are up for the task.