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It has been hailed as the Black Summer, one of the most devastating bushfire seasons in Australian history – dubbed by many as ‘Armageddon.’ Beginning in September 2019 and stretching on through March 2020, bushfires raged across south-eastern Australia, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation in their wake.
At the end of the season, more than 17 million hectares of land had been devastated by the fires. That’s almost the size of England, and is more than double the area consumed by the Brazilian Amazon fires, which in comparison burned for twice as long as the Australian bushfires.
But the bushfires did more than just consume the drought-ravaged land. The rising heat from these massive bushfires created pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCb clouds. These fire clouds are created when fires diffuse enough heat and moisture into the atmosphere to produce thunderstorms.
These fire-,generated storm clouds created wild weather conditions including rain, lightning, and out-of-control fire tornadoes.
The fires destroyed nearly 6,000 buildings, including over 2,700 homes, and killed at least 34 people. But perhaps the most devastating loss of life was among the wildlife, the animal kingdom. Reports show that nearly 3 billion animals were either killed or displaced as a result of the fires.
According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund 143 million mammals, 2.5 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs were affected. The findings were shocking, and prompted scientists to declare that no other event anywhere in the world in living memory has killed or displaced this many animals.
In the midst of the fires, zoos across the country dispatched teams of staff to offer veterinary support and wildlife triage in areas most affected by the fires. These vets and carers helped to rescue and nurse a host of wildlife, including koalas who had been traumatised and seriously injured.
But there was another four-legged hero who contributed to the rescue of more than one hundred Koalas and other small marsupials: Meet Bear! An Australian Koolie who was specifically trained to search for and rescue koalas, quolls and other small Australian marsupials in the wild.
Bear was just over 1 year old when he came to the Detection Dogs for Conservation. He was full of energy and always on the go. Bear was rescued and trained by the Detection Dogs for Conservation Program at the University of the Sunshine Coast, with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Before the bushfires Bear’s primary job was to use his keen sense of smell to find marsupials who were sick or injured, so that they could be rescued for conservation and research purposes.
During the bushfires, Bear’s special skills and training came in handy, and he was deployed as a search and rescue dog to find traumatised or seriously injured Koalas who had been affected by the unprecedented fires.
Since then Bear has become something of a celebrity! He has been featured in numerous newspapers and journals and was even recently the star of his very own documentary program. He also has his own Instagram account with an ardent following.
Bear’s story reminds us that a dog is not just man’s best friend, but can also be a friend to other vulnerable animals as well. Join us this week as we take a look at this remarkable canine hero.
One of the most iconic and valued components of the Australian bush is the faithful working dog. For generations Australian farmers and drovers have relied on their canine companions to help them with the daily running of their farms and sheep stations.
In fact, there are over 270,000 stock herding dogs working across rural Australia today, engaged in not only managing stock but also guarding them, and guarding properties as well.
Australian working dogs were bred to be tough, smart and loyal.
Breeds like the Kelpie, Koolie, and Cattle Dog or Heeler seem to have an innate ability to make valuable contributions to farm life, especially on cattle and sheep stations. Many farmers say these breeds are harder workers than many men.
The Australian Kelpie is a medium sized dog that is capable of working tirelessly. It’s acclaimed the best all-round stock dog in the world.
They were originally bred from a Scottish Collie and are extremely intelligent, alert, and eager dogs with seemingly unlimited energy. The Kelpie is an extremely valuable asset on any Australian farm, as this dog is capable of mustering and droving livestock, usually sheep, cattle and goats, with little or no guidance. They’re tough, resilient little dogs and have a lot of spirit.
Now the Australian Cattle Dog is another breed of herding dog, originally developed in Australia for droving or moving cattle over long distances across rough terrain. In the 19th century, a NSW cattle farmer, Thomas Hall cross-bred the dogs used by the stockman or drovers, that had come from Northumberland, England, with the Dingoes that he had tamed.
The resulting dogs were known as Hall’s Heelers. After Hall’s death in 1870, the dogs became known as the Australian Cattle Dog which has been nicknamed as a ‘Red Heeler’ or a ‘Blue Heeler’ because of its brown and black coat of hair, and the way it nips at the heels of cattle to move them along.
THE AUSTRALIAN KOOLIE
Then there’s the Australian Koolie. They’re high energy dogs that are first and foremost working dogs. The breed is known for its speed and stamina, herding sheep and driving cattle. They’ve existed in Australia since the early 19th century when they were bred from imported British working dogs. They’re active and intelligent with a strong desire to work, and they need a job to do. Otherwise, they quickly get bored and get up to mischief!
But what happens to working dogs who struggle to fit into the mould? Well, meet Bear – an Australian Koolie who was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and surrendered by his previous owners. While Bear doesn’t fit the mould of the traditional Australian Koolie, he is somewhat of a national hero.
BEAR AND THE DETECTION PROGRAM
Bear is part of a team of dogs at the Detection Dogs for Conservation program run by the University of the Sunshine Coast. The program was founded in 2015, and has been directed by Dr. Romane Cristescu.
The aim of the program is to use detection dogs to protect and preserve native Australian wildlife, especially the many species who are under threat. They are the only university in Australia that rescues, trains, and deploys dogs to conserve Australian wildlife.
Before Bear joined the Detection Dog team, he spent a lot of time cooped up in a small apartment, where he was extremely bored and as a result practically destroyed the place where he lived. In fact, he was so destructive that he even gnawed at the walls in the home.
His owners decided that he had more energy than they were able to handle and chose to give him up. Around the same time, the Detection Dog team was looking for a koala detection dog to join their program and Bear had the perfect blend of energy and enthusiasm for the job.
So, while Bear wasn’t the best domestic dog or even the most desirable working dog, he was the perfect detection dog. Bear has been working as a conservation dog since 2017, and works to find koalas who are in need of help, making him not just a conservation dog but also an animal welfare dog as well.
Bear’s regular job is to help monitor the population and health of koalas throughout Southeast Queensland. Bear was instrumental in searching for ill, injured or malnourished Koalas in bushfire zones who could then be rescued and restored to health.
Since the bushfires began in earnest in November of 2019, over 17 million hectares of land have been ravaged by fire and about 3 billion animals have been either destroyed or displaced by the fires.
This catastrophic event was one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history. As the bushfires fires raged across Australia from June 2019 to February 2020, millions of animals were killed or displaced. It’s estimated that the cost of the bushfires was $103 billion in Australian dollars.
BUSHFIRE RESCUE AND RECOVERY
During the height of the bushfire season various organisations rescued koalas from bushfire zones, but none became as well-known as Bear. This was his first bushfire season, according to his trainer Dr. Romane Cristescu, who admits that the work is more dangerous than they are normally used to.
Like the other dogs in the Detection Dog program, Bear has been trained to respond to a series of commands that prompt him to go in search of koalas. Before he is taken into a bushfire zone, he has to put on protective boots to make sure his paws are not damaged during his search and rescue operation.
During the search, Dr. Cristescu repeatedly prompts Bear to search for koalas in the area, using the familiar commands. Unlike most other detection dogs, Bear is trained to find koalas by the scent of their fur instead of the scent of their droppings.
Bear’s sense of smell is roughly 100,000 times more acute than ours, and he uses his super nose to sniff out koalas in a designated area. When he detects the scent of a koala, he drops down at the foot of the tree that the koala is in and waits.
Once the team has sighted a koala, they then begin the tricky process of extracting it from the tree so that it can be examined. This is done in one of two ways; either using a long flagpole to coax the koala down from the tree or by setting up a makeshift trap at the base of the tree.
The makeshift trap is really a cardboard fence that is placed at the base of the tree. The fence has a single exit, that leads directly into a small cage that is lined with eucalyptus leaves. This method causes the least amount of distress but requires the greatest amount of time.
When a koala comes down from its tree in the night to move around its territory it finds itself surrounded by the fence, and takes the only available exit into the trap. The next morning the team is able to take the koala to the nearest wildlife hospital for triage and treatment.
Bear’s role in the search and rescue operation ensures that koalas are found quickly. Without Bear’s sense of smell, it would be extremely difficult to detect a koala, which would mean that many of these amazing creatures would have died as a result of smoke inhalation or malnutrition in the aftermath of the fires.
One of the facilities that take in injured wildlife is Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Queensland. The Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital is one of the largest and busiest purpose-built wildlife hospitals, giving injured wildlife a second chance. In the past year around 10,000 animals have been brought to the hospital.
During the bushfires, koalas were especially vulnerable to a whole host of potential threats. Smoke inhalation and malnutrition were the most pressing in terms of physical danger. Then there were other environmental causes that put koalas at risk as well.
Koalas are territorial animals and have defined home ranges within which they roam. In the aftermath of the bushfires, many of these ranges were destroyed, leaving koalas with almost no supply of food.
Koalas who managed to escape the bushfires and began returning to their home ranges ran the risk of dying of malnutrition, which is why the efforts of dogs like Bear made such a significant difference in saving their lives.
Bear was able to lead rescue workers to these koalas before it was too late, which meant that many koalas who might have otherwise died of malnutrition were saved in the nick of time, and transported to animal shelters that were able to nurse them back to health.
TWO THUMBS SANCTUARY
One of the search and rescue missions that Bear participated in took place at the Two Thumbs Koala sanctuary just outside the town of Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales.
The sanctuary, which was destroyed by bushfires in the early part of 2020, is owned and operated by James Fitzgerald, a former IT professional who purchased about 1,800 acres of land which he turned into three koala sanctuaries.
In January of 2020 the sanctuary was under threat from a bushfire raging in the area. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service deployed a Lockheed C-130 Hercules firefighting air tanker loaded with fire retardant from the Richmond RAAF base, to fight the blaze.
Tragically, the air tanker crashed not far from the Two Thumbs Koala Sanctuary, killing all three of the firefighters who were on board. The blaze engulfed the sanctuary shortly after, destroying all its buildings and killing all the koalas in its care.
The most heart-wrenching part of the sad story is that James Fitzgerald had evacuated all the animals in the Sanctuary on the 30 December because of the fire danger, and had only just brought them back into the sanctuary when the fire struck again, destroying them all.
Not long after the fires the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who sponsor Bear’s work, contacted James to offer him help. Bear was sent to the Two Thumbs Sanctuary to find surviving koalas.
Bear and his handler Dr. Cristescu went down to the area, and Bear successfully located a female koala with a joey. The first attempts to retrieve the mother and baby were only partially successful, as the joey got into the cage without her distressed mother.
Eventually the mother was also rescued, and both mum and baby were transported to the Koala Crisis Centre set up by the Australian National University in Canberra.
There the mother and joey were both triaged to ascertain their health. Vets found that the mother was emaciated, and would only have survived a few more days in the wild if Bear had not found her when he did.
The joey too was thin, though not as malnourished as her mother. They were both put on a special diet at the crisis centre, and carefully monitored over the next three weeks in order to build up their health.
The mom and joey, who were named Jessie and Amelia, thrived under the care of the vets at the crisis centre and survived the ordeal. At the end of the three weeks vets discovered that the mother koala, Jessie, was actually pregnant which meant that if Bear had not found her, both she and her unborn baby would have died.
Dogs like Bear ensure that koalas like Jessie and Amelia not only survive but thrive and go on to be released back into their wild native habitats. Were it not for Bear’s efforts hundreds of koalas would have died because of a lack of nutrition and proper medical attention.
For his outstanding work during the bushfires, Bear, who himself was once in need of rescuing, was honoured in October 2021 in the UK, for his bravery in finding 100 koalas in the Australian bush.
Bear’s story is much like another story, another search and rescue mission that made a difference between life and death.
ANOTHER RESCUE STORY
There is a story told of a shepherd in the Bible book of Luke 15. Jesus told the parable or story of a shepherd who had 100 sheep.
One day, while leading the sheep from place to place in search of food and water, one of the 100 sheep wanders away from the flock and is lost. The sheep didn’t mean to get lost, and the shepherd was unaware of the sheep’s predicament until later that evening, when he gets the flock of sheep home.
While herding his sheep into their pen for the night, the shepherd counts them one by one, only to realise that one sheep is missing. Of the 100 sheep in his care, only 99 have come home. One is lost and alone on the wild mountainside, where wolves and a hundred other dangers lurk in the shadows.
Though exhausted, the shepherd secures the 99 sheep in their pen and heads back out, retracing his path and searching for the one lost sheep that has wandered away.
The shepherd is tireless in his efforts, refusing to give up, searching high and low until he hears a faint bleat in the darkness. Following the weak sound, he lifts his torch overhead and discovers his lost sheep, trapped in a thorny thicket.
Gently extricating the sheep, the shepherd places it over his shoulders and makes the long journey back home, weary, but rejoicing that he has found the one lost sheep that had strayed from the safety of the fold.
Much like Bear who searched and rescued the lost koalas in the burnt trees, the shepherd in this parable was determined, refusing to give up until he had found and rescued the one lost sheep.
There are times when we all feel lost and alone in life. Financial struggles, marital difficulties, unfair treatment, and employment problems. We look for someone to rescue us from the situation we find ourselves in. We sometimes feel as if we need a good shepherd to care for us. And here’s the good news: we’ve got one!
JESUS, OUR SHEPHERD
Jesus has promised to be our shepherd, our protector. Let’s look at the words of the Shepherd,s Psalm found in the Bible. The opening line is the most famous line in all of the psalms. Here’s what it says in Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3)
Now, isn’t that reassuring? It’s so comforting to know that the good shepherd will lead, guide and protect us. No matter where we may be stranded in life, He will lead us to a better place. He will rescue us, protect us and lead us to a safe place. But there’s more in Psalm 23.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
And so remember, shepherds always carried a rod and a staff to protect their sheep. And in the same way, God is there to protect you and care for you. Now, let’s read how the Shepherd’s psalm ends.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:5,6)
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most loved and widely-known passages of scripture in the Bible. This psalm will give us peace when our lives seem to be in disarray, when we are in despair or facing a trial, because it gives us the assurance that no matter what is happening in our lives, God is always there with us. He is with us now and forever. His love, His protection and His providence will always guide and sustain us.
Just six verses, that can change your outlook, [and] allay your fears and give you hope!
Sometimes we all feel like we need to be rescued from what is happening all around us. If you would like to find out more about the Shepherd’s Psalm and how Jesus reaches out to rescue each one of us, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all our Incredible Journey viewers today.
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If you’ve enjoyed meeting Bear, the hero dog, and our reflections on how we can trust in Jesus, then be sure to join us again next week, when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray to the best Friend we can ever have.
Dear Heavenly Father. We live in a world of challenges and struggles. We all face difficulties at one stage or another in our lives. We all feel lost and alone at times. We thank you for your gracious offer to rescue us and help us. We reach out to You now, and pray for your blessing upon us and our families. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.