Canine-human teams rescue Australia’s fire-ravaged koalas


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.

Peter Berecry rescues a koala. Photo courtesy of Peter Berecry.

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.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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