The Current

Meet Bear, the sniffer dog trained to find koalas threatened by Australia's bushfires

Amid the devastation of the bushfires in Australia, one dog has stepped up to help his furry friends. Meet Bear, a research dog who has been trained to sniff out koalas — who can’t run from the flames.

Research team had trained Bear the dog to sniff out koala scent

Bear the research dog has been trained to sniff out koalas, who can’t run from the flames. (Meghan Halverson/IFAW)
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Amid the devastation of bushfires in Australia, a dog named Bear is using his trusty nose to help the animals threatened by the flames.

The fires have killed at least 27 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes across 10.7 million hectares. Millions of animals have also been killed or displaced in the massive fires.

The country's koala bear population has been hit particularly hard, as the tree-dwellers cannot quickly run or fly from the approaching flames like other animals.

Bear had already been trained to sniff out the koalas, by a research team that studies them. Now those researchers are relying on Bear to find koalas, so they can take them out of harm's way. 

Romane Cristescu, a koala ecologist and one of Bear's keepers, sat down with Matt Galloway to explain the work they do. Here is part of their conversation.

When he finds a koala, Bear is rewarded with a ball to play with. (Meghan Halverson/IFAW)

How does Bear find injured koalas?

We train him to detect koala scent, so he's got a tough job because koalas live in trees, so the scent is a bit hard to pinpoint.

But he's helping us find koalas for research, so that we can tag them and then follow their movements across the landscape. For him ... it's a game to find a scent, and then get to play with a ball. So he doesn't really realize that those animals are actually injured, and in need of care. He just wants to get to play with his toy.

So when he smells a koala, what does he do?

He's trained to drop. We didn't want to train him to bark because we do work in wildlife areas, in national parks and and other beautiful places. And the last thing you want is to actually introduce a predator that's going to stress out animals. So he just sits very quiet, he just drops and then he waits for us to catch up and to play with his ball.

So in the scale of this devastation, how much of a help has Bear been in helping to rescue injured koalas?

At the end of the day, the scale is just so mind-blowing it's hard to really imagine it. But I'm not going to lie to you, it's a drop in the ocean. And we may have lost thousands [of koalas]. We still don't know and the fire is still growing.

At the moment, all of us [are] trying our best to do something, even if it's a small thing. Any koala at this point of time is important because as you lost a big proportion of the population, you're going through what's called a genetic bottleneck. And that's bad news for animals, because the more diversity they have, the better they are at being resilient to any future change. 

At this at this point of time, even though it's not enough, it's better than nothing.

A rescued koala injured in a bushfire in Kangaroo Island, South Australia. (Dana Mitchell/Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park/The Associated Press)

Tell me about Bear. What kind of dog is he?

He's a crazy, crazy dog.

Our dogs are rescue dogs, and the way we choose them is the dog that wants to play all day long. And often those dogs are a bit much as a pet, because they're really obsessed and single-minded. So we actually found them in pounds very often, and we have five of them at the moment, that we've trained on on different odours, but mainly for koala research and Bear is definitely our craziest.

But that single-mindedness is important, as you say, because you want him to be obsessed with finding that scent.

Yeah, exactly.

He's a bit socially awkward if you want. The one that kind of pushes all the rest of them around. But this is how we select them for that obsession. And then when the ball is out, he just forgets where he is. He'll step on the other dogs, he'll push them around and the word disappears, and the only thing that matters is that tennis ball.

That's how we can go anywhere and work in any places, even post-fire, because Bear doesn't see that. Bear sees you've got the tennis ball and we're gonna get to play, and that's all that matters.

Bear is a rescue dog, whose exuberant personality makes him perfect for the research team's work. (Meghan Halverson/IFAW)

He's become a bit of a star on the internet. Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio and other people giving him shout outs on social media. What has that done in terms of raising awareness for the work that you're doing?

We hope it's done a lot for the cause of koalas, and all the animals that are suffering post-fire. To be entirely honest with you, we think it's a bit too much to focus only on Bear, but we understand he's a great story. He's a rescue dog that no one wanted, and that ended up doing some good for conservation, and being even praised by Tom Hanks.

It gives hope to people in a personal note that you can be unwanted at some time in your life, but still end up doing something really good. And also, I think it gives hope that there are a lot of us on the ground, not just Bear, trying to do whatever we can.

That's our hope, that people are attracted to that lovely story, but then they see the bigger picture.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Danielle Carr. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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