The legend of Zorro and the masked owls

A smiling woman holding a black and white dog and a stuffed toy owl and

Zorro with Nicole Gill

From tracking down hard-to-find owls to protecting bats, there’s nothing Zorro the detection dog can’t do. Jess Fagan reports on the pooch who is helping save our feathered and furry friends. 

Spending hours on end sniffing out stinky owl vomit and dead bats might not be everyone’s idea of a dream job, but it’s the perfect fit for Zorro, a much-loved member of the Difficult Bird Research Group.  

His human companion and handler Nicole Gill says even though Zorro can be a “bit of a diva” sometimes, at three and a half years old, the Border collie-springer spaniel cross is coming into his prime as a dog detective.  

“He’s kind of like one of those rock stars that behaves a bit outrageously, but because they’re so good at their job you let them get away with it,” Gill explains. “He’s also settled a lot now he’s a bit older, he’s got a lot more stamina in the field and he’s a bit better at relaxing.” 

Zorro joined Gill and the ANU-based Difficult Bird Research Group as a puppy and underwent his training in Queensland, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. These days, when he’s not helping to monitor bird and bat mortality at a wind farm in Tasmania’s Central Highlands, he’s busy tracking down the elusive masked owl. 

Zorro is trained to sniff out the owls’ pellets - regurgitated bits of prey that look a bit like cat furballs. “We’ve done a few random surveys in places where people think there might be a masked owl,” Gill explains. 

“Recently Zorro was able to sniff out pellets in an area south of Hobart. An ecological burn had been planned for the site, so it was really important to know if owls were using it. The pellets were buried underneath leaf litter, so without him we wouldn’t have found them. It’s pretty astonishing what their noses can detect.” 

Gill is fairly new to working with dogs; in fact, Zorro is her first detection dog. She says it’s been a steep learning curve for both of them, as Zorro often has his own ideas on how things should be done. 

“That cheekiness and stubbornness is actually kind of important in a detection dog. You have to trust them in the field, to allow them to make their own decisions, and trust that they know what’s going on.” 

The use of dogs in conservation science is a rapidly expanding field in Australia. Gill says we’re now seeing dogs like Zorro work in a whole range of new areas. “Dogs can find pretty much anything that has an odour, you just need to work out how to ask the question in a way they’ll understand,” she says. “Detection dogs have even been trained to detect chlamydia in koala poo. They’ve proven to be more accurate than lab tests.” 

It takes a lot of training to get to that point, and Gill says you need to be really clear when setting the parameters of what you want the dog to find. In Zorro’s case, something as simple as the type of pellets used during his training, including where they’d been stored and whether they came from captive or wild owls, made a big difference.  

But once Zorro made it into the field, he took to it, well, like a dog to water.  

“A lot of the time when he’s working Zorro looks like he’s messing around, he might be rolling in something or going for a swim. But that’s kind of the point, he’s supposed to think it’s all a fun game,” Gill says.   

“He’s learning to chill out a bit more. Dogs’ brains can get full quite quickly, especially if they’re searching really intently. It’s the same as a human focusing really hard on a task, their brain gets tired.  

“Ideally, you’d put them somewhere dark and quiet so they could have a nap, but in the forest that’s obviously not always an option. What we’d do a lot when he was younger was stop for a cup of tea and put on some reggae, he found it really calming. Now when the thermos comes out, he knows it’s break time." 

Zorro’s next mission is helping Gill and fellow Difficult Bird Research Group member Adam Cistern complete their Masters and PhD projects.  

In the meantime, he’s busy staking his claim on the couch, and passing a few tricks of the trade on to Gill’s new protégé, a Border collie named Gromit.  

This article appeared in the Summer 2021-22 edition of ANU Reporter

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