Gently cradling the tiny swallow in my hands, I watched as it gulped down its lunch.
‘Good birdie,’ I smiled, pleased at its progress.
After falling from its nest in a nearby tree, I’d decided to hand-raise the little bird.
Growing up in France, I’d loved animals of all sizes.
From turtles to moles, and even mice, I never shied away from helping any creatures in need.
As I got older, my passion for animals and conservation only grew stronger, so I decided to become a veterinarian, before training as an ecologist.
And after watching a documentary about Australian wildlife, I became fascinated with koalas. I was captivated by their strict diet of eucalyptus leaves and their sleepy nature.
But I was saddened to learn about their declining numbers due to diseases, bush-fires and habitat loss.
If I can find their homes, I can help to protect them, I thought, determined.
So, in March 2007, I moved to Australia to undertake my PhD in wildlife.
Once I arrived, I got to work tracking koalas’ movements by locating their droppings on the forest floor.
Spending long days on my hands and knees, I desperately searched for any sign that the marsupials had been through the area.
Occasionally, I would stumble across their poo, but the work was slow and tiring.
There has to be a better way, I thought.
That’s when I came up with the idea of training a dog to locate the droppings.
But when I shared the idea with my colleagues, they thought I was crazy.
Still, I didn’t let their opinions dishearten me. And, during a koala retreat on Stradbroke Island in August that year, I met a dog trainer named Gary.
‘You can absolutely make that work,’ he smiled.
Incredibly, just three weeks later, he phoned me with some exciting news.
He’d rescued Maya, an energetic border collie who’d been abandoned by her previous owners.
‘She’s totally obsessed with balls,’ he said, explaining it was the perfect trait for a dog to be good at detecting certain objects or smells, such as koala habitats.
But we needed more help with tracking the cuddly creatures too.
So with the help of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), we set about recruiting for another koala detection dog.
And in March 2016, I was introduced to Bear, an 18-month-old Australian Koolie. Diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, Bear had destroyed his previous owner’s flat by eating all the furniture and walls out of boredom.
So they’d surrendered him to us.
Luckily for Bear, his gentle temperament and high play drive made him the perfect candidate.
Back at home, I was eager to get on with his training.
But the poor thing wasn’t used to being touched.
As my hand stroked his soft grey fur, it was like I’d given him an electric shock.
Thankfully, as we spent more time together, Bear grew more comfortable.
And after training him every day for 18 months, he was finally ready to get out with his handler, Riana.
He’d learned to block out the sights and sounds of other wildlife.
Instead, he let his nose pave the way to the koala fur.
As soon as he picked up the scent, he’d drop to the ground until the team was able to locate the koala.
Then they could deploy a koala trap.
When the koala stepped inside, the trap would close and send an alert to our phone.
From there, the team was able to fit the koala with a GPS monitor to help us to track their movements, or transport them directly to a nearby koala hospital if they were sick or injured.
Now, almost four years on, Bear has come a long way.
At home, he loves nothing more than to cuddle up while I watch TV.
But when he’s on the road, he’s in full work mode.
During the recent deadly bushfires that tore through New South Wales and Queensland, Bear was deployed to help locate injured koalas.
Fitted out with little red fire-proof booties to protect his paws from the scorched ground, he’d search national parks that had been affected by the blazes for orphaned or injured survivors.
Before long, photos of Bear went viral and our koala detection dog made headlines all over the world.
‘You’re a star,’ I told him.
Bear’s one of the few dogs in the world that can sniff out koala fur.
Since joining our team, he’s helped to locate dozens of injured koalas and helped to save many more through GPS tracking, which helps us continue with vital research for their ongoing plight.
Together we’re determined to keep these cuddly creatures around for many years to come.
Their lives depend on it.