USC Animal Ecology graduate Jess Johnson with USC detection dog Baxter.
USC Animal Ecology graduate Jess Johnson with USC detection dog Baxter.

Coast student teams up with star koala-detection dog

MEETING a koala-detection dog led to a total career change for one Fraser Coast woman.

"For more than a decade, my career goal was to combine my background in architecture and my experience and interest in the canine industry to become a behavioural ecologist with a strong focus on animal exhibit and enclosure design," Jess Johnson, 32, said.

Now the architectural designer has added working in wildlife detection and protection to her career goals after completing a final-year undergraduate research project with the University of the Sunshine Coast's Detection Dogs for Conservation program, which trains rescue dogs to find and protect vulnerable species.

Ms Johnson was studying Animal Ecology at USC's Fraser Coast campus.

Working with supervisor Associate Professor Romane Cristescu, who co-founded the program, Jess used radio tracking devices fitted to koalas in the Redland area to assess USC/IFAW koala detection dog Bear and his handler's accuracy and efficiency for detecting koalas in the wild.

Bear gained global media fame last summer after he was deployed in a partnership between USC and IFAW to find koalas in fire-ravaged areas across Australia's east coast - even earning praise on Twitter from Hollywood stars Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

USC Animal Ecology graduate Jess Johnson uses a radio tracking device to test the accuracy of USC detection dogs in locating koalas in the wild.
USC Animal Ecology graduate Jess Johnson uses a radio tracking device to test the accuracy of USC detection dogs in locating koalas in the wild.

"It wasn't until I started the degree that I discovered the remarkable work that USC was doing to utilise canines to save so many vulnerable species," Jess said.

"It was really a perfect match for me, as I am passionate about dogs and have more than a decade of experience in the canine industry as a dog obedience instructor, acting pound officer, animal rescue volunteer and puppy foster carer."

As a pathway to a PhD, Jess is now expanding her research and field skills by continuing Honours research on koala habitat protection with the Detection Dogs for Conservation team and Dr Cristescu.

Her Honours project aims to critically assess the success of proposed offset strategies for koala conservation by analysing how they are developed, approved and monitored at a national level under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

"I have a strong passion for animals and, ultimately, I want to contribute to research that enriches their lives, including those in captivity," Jess said, who was working as an architectural draftsperson and studying Psychology in Perth when she enrolled at USC.

"It was a huge step to pack up my life in West Australia, but I was excited by USC's Animal Ecology program and its focus on studying animals in their natural habitats to better understand how to protect their future."



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