25 January 2020

Brilliant dogs rescue some koalas from Australian bush fires.

I love dogs, especially those trained as service animals, and I love koala bears. As bush­­fires ravaged Australia this summer, there were many human her­oes that stepped up to defend their communities. But now the world has became entranced by the service dogs saving koalas dec­imated by the blazes.  Here are some newspaper articles from late 2019-early 2020.

A burnt koala brought into a protected environment

The native animals’ homes were already burned to the ground in Queensland and most nat­ive animals in the burnt areas had died. A blue-eyed border-collie named Bear made international head­lines after helping rescuers save injured and orphaned wildlife. Bear walked around wear­ing socks to protect his four paws, and then sat very still to alert the handler when a koala was near. Already in late 2019, Bear was praised for his ability to sniff out both koala scat-droppings and fur. The animal charity International Fund for Animal Welfare/IFAW shared photos of Bear in action.

IFAW campaigner Josey Sharrad explained why Bear's job was import­ant. Now, more than ever, saving individual koalas was critical. With such an intense start to the summer bushfire season, it has been weeks and months before some/all of these fires were put out. In the meantime, wildlife continued to need to be rescued and treated, and had to remain in care for some time. The road to recovery for the burned koalas was long.

The wildlife experts trialled different survey methods and the most effective by far was using the detection dogs. The dog helped find the scats, such that the ex­perts could then start focusing on the canopy and doing an intense search to locate the koala. Bear roamed around burnt-out areas and sat very still to alert his hand­ler when a burned koala was near. The detection dogs were thus incredibly essential.

Now another hero, a specially trained dog named Smudge, was assis­ting animal rescuers in the New South Wales/NSW Blue Mountains. Smudge was also helping to save injured koalas by sniffing them out in the bush after their habitat had been devastated by fires. This dog had been spec­ially trained to track down koala scat, finding twice as much scat in five minutes as a team of three skilled searchers would in an hour. Tragically thousands koalas already died in the Blue Mountain fires alone.

BEAR located koala scat and waited for the wildlife experts to search for the koala
Note his socks, protecting his paws from the burnt ground.

Burned trees, after the Callignee fire went through,
destroying koalas' food supply and sleeping spaces

The wildlife experts knew they needed help to rescue injured koalas. Research­er Dr Kel­lie Leigh was working alongside Smudge and said dogs like him made it far eas­ier to search for koalas in dense bushland. Clearly the Blue Mountains were really diff­icult hab­it­ats to survey: the trees were big, the can­opy was dense and the koalas could not be located just by looking.

Three special dogs, Tommy, Emma and Becky, and their trainer Steve Austin, searched scorched land for injured koalas in NSW. Like other detection dogs, Austin’s team was also trained to find injured koalas by tracking the scent of their scat. So far this fire season, Austin's dogs have located 16 koalas. Experts then came in to rescue the burned animals which were treated at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Sydney.

Note the koala named Flash that was found in Taree in northern NSW with burns so severe, he had to be sedated before treatment. Meanwhile, heart warming footage has emerged of firefighters giving a drink of water to two koalas they rescued from catastrophic bush­fires. Lester Miles was on his way to relieve day shift crews fight­ing a blaze burning for more than a week at Spicers Gap in Maryvale, Qld, one night when he saw the koalas surrounded by flames. The Brisbane fire fighter said the koalas would have been burnt alive if they hadn't been spotted and saved. They had nowhere to go since there was fire all around them. Coming up through there, the men had to go through the fire itself. Even more dangerous, there were a lot of trees falling over.
Now a totally unplanned, unexpected saving of a koala. A gallant golden retriever has been hailed a hero after saving an aband­oned baby koala’s life, by letting it snuggle in her fur. Proud dog owner Kerry McKinnon was shocked after discovering the tiny koala joey snuggled up with her five-year-old golden retriever As­ha. The dog owner from Strathdownie in Western Victoria said the koala probably became separated from its mother during the night and wandered onto her back porch, finding comfort in Asha’s warm fur. With early morning temperatures plummeting down to 5c, Kerry McKinnon said that the helpless koala never would have made it through the night if it hadn’t been cuddled up to Asha. The retriev­­er’s heroic feat in honour of the koala has since gone viral on social media.

 Asha the golden retriever saved a baby koala's life by keeping him warm all night.

The Word Wildlife Fund said that 30,000 koalas may have perish­ed, although the final toll won't be known for months. Worse still, koalas are known to breed so slowly that it could take 100 years for the population to rebuild. This meant that every animal that was rescued from death was crucial.


Country Wife said...

The firies and dogs were heroic. Terrible news about the American volunteers dying.

Andrew said...

It must be important to act quickly as if koalas have lost food sources and aren't eating, there won't be scats for dogs to find. It's good to hear a couple of positive stories.

Hels said...

Country Wife

I too am overwhelmed about how brave the rural communities were and are. The only personal experience I remember was the Avoca and Maryborough fires in the middle 1980s, and that was fearful enough.

And I too find the news of the three American deaths unthinkable. Imagine leaving the family and paid job, volunteering to travel overseas, fighting terrible bushfires in unfamiliar conditions and then dying. Three brave men.

Hels said...


The Koala Foundation says: Eucalyptus leaves are very fibrous and low in nutrition, and to most animals are extremely poisonous. To cope with such a diet, nature has equipped Koalas with specialised adaptations. A very slow metabolic rate allows Koalas to retain food within their digestive system for long periods, maximising the amount of energy able to be extracted. At the same time, this slow metabolic rate minimises energy requirements. So Koalas sleep 18-22 hours each day, to conserve energy.

You are right...it seems inevitable that the lost food supplies will kill those koalas who somehow survived the worst of the fires.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - how very interesting ... I hadn't come across the Koala rescue dogs ... so pleased you posted about this story regarding the fires and the destruction - yet small pockets of hope will grow ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


Every nation on earth has had its fair share of destructive events like earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, typhoons and war damage. But this summer's destruction seems to be part of an on-going climate change (hotter weather and tougher droughts) rather than a one-off crisis. So like you, I also hope that we are learning and changing, that the native animals do not become rare etc.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These are wonderful stories about the dogs and the koalas, and the point is well taken that given the koala's specialized biology, each rescue is individually important. Still, there is so much being lost in the fires, thousands and thousands of micro-climates and adapted species, not all as cute or headline-inducing as the koala*, but just as important in the overall ecology that binds the world together. All of these species need saving, and it is fearful to contemplate the total aftermath of these fires.
*although I do have to admit that photo with the dog and baby koala is a real heart-melter!

Fun60 said...

Working dogs are so intelligent. The situation in Australia is tragic and as you say it is going to be a long time before the full outcome of this disaster is known.

Hels said...


yes indeed.. thousands of micro-climates and adapted species could well have been destroyed across the vast areas burned to the ground. The reason I concentrated on koalas was because 1] they are one of the cutest animals on the planet, as you say, and 2] they are a national treasure and symbol. I remember when China's pandas were facing extinction .. it was an unthinkable tragedy.

Coincidentally this morning's news reported that the pygmy blue-tongue lizard faces extinction, and not just from the fires. Climate warming in general is making their normal area far too hot to sustain their colonies.

Hels said...


working dogs are intelligent, loyal and more useful than teenage sons and daughters. At least where I see the dogs most - rounding up sheep or sniffing for drugs at airports.

But I had underestimated just how clever these detection dogs could be at a time of national crisis.

David Mills and Louise Starkey said...

Prof Dickman (Sydney Uni) said at least half the animals’ habitat on Kangaroo Island and one quarter of its range in northern NSW had been destroyed this bushfire season. But he stressed that there were still areas for the animals that had not been destroyed. The plight of the eucalyptus-munching marsupial in the bushfires has dominated coverage of the crisis, but the Queensland state government’s proposed plan to protect 570,000 hectares of land for koalas would also offer protection to other marsupials, forest birds, reptiles and all the invertebrates associated with the forest.

David Mills and Louise Starkey,
News Corp Australia Network

Sue Bursztynski said...

Working dogs are amazing. The fact that these ones were trained to smell koala scat says something about the expectation of bad bushfires in the summer - we have them every year, of course, but never this bad. I hope they have enough working dogs to handle it!

Hels said...

David and Louise

many thanks for the information about protecting the land for koalas and other animals in Qld. That raises two questions: 1] is protecting bio-diversity in Australia a state or a federal responsibility and 2] how will the 570,000 hectares in Qld be protected from future bushfires and other crises?

Hels said...


It always seemed that WA, SA, Victoria and Tasmania had very hot, dry summers and so bushfires were quite common. But NSW and Queensland always had warm winters and wet summers, and therefore were relatively inexperienced in summer bushfires. When we saw the boiling hot temperatures in NSW this summer, clearly climate change was fast and potentially critical.

I hope they do a lot of planning regarding more appropriate rural architecture, bush hazard reduction, protection plans for domestic and farm animals etc etc

mem said...

Yes well lets hope land clearing fro new housing estates in Southern QLD slows down now but I am not holding my breath . I am just so disgusted by the low caliber of some politicians at the moment . Very ordinary stupid short sighted and in QLD the good old whire shoes brigade lives on. Thank god Koalas are so cute . !!!!

Hels said...


I too am often disgusted by our politicians. But I would have thought that at least at a time of national crisis, now was the time for concerned politicians across the board to get together without political point scoring.

Ditto bring all the Australian citizens back from Wuhan China (and put them in a health facility here, if necessary). But again without political point scoring.

mem said...

Dream on Hels, I fear this bunch just dont have the moral or intellectual fire power to do that .

CherryPie said...

The fires are horrific and difficult to take on board.

The human rescue aspect and in this case the doggie aspect is so humbling. Putting their lives at risk to embark on a rescue mission.

Hels said...


it seems that those politicians who did have the moral and intellectual fire power were savaged by the opposition and sabotaged by their own party - Julia Gillard, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Turnbull etc.

Hels said...


that opens a question that everyone has to answer: "what would I do if faced with a disaster that required amazing bravery?"

I would certainly open up my home if rural families required shelter and I would certainly provide food and clothing to schools etc, but there is NO way I would race into blazing bush fires.