How A Professional Zookeeper And Dog Trainer Is Helping Save The Koala Population – with Simone Popp

Listen to the full episode here

In this episode of Beyond the Green Line we meet animal trainer and conservationist Simone Popp. Hailing from Sydney with a background in agriculture studies, her first job was teaching kids about sustainable farming methods and types of produce at an education farm. Part of her job was training dogs for herding demonstrations, and she fell in love with caring for and teaching animals. 

Simone later moved into zoo-keeping and tracking (with detection dogs) Koalas at Port Macquarie’s Billabong Zoo. In our chat today she shares how dramatically Koala numbers have dropped, and how education can help ordinary people contribute to the conservation of wildlife.  

Some of her favorite and most meaningful work to date has been doing post bush-fire surveys and checking for Koala populations in important areas. One of the team’s detection dogs was recently awarded the Canine Hero Award from the Royal Agricultural Society for finding and saving at-risk Koalas during the fires.  

Now an animal trainer and conservationist with Tate Animal Training in Port Macquarie, Simone gets contracted by local government and land services as well as national parks to utilize the dogs’ skills in order to conserve balance in the wildlife by checking cargo and surveying properties. 

Simone shares her gratitude for the farming and zoo-keeping opportunities afforded to her over the years, starting with working at a horse riding school as a child, then becoming a vet nurse, then studying agriculture in University. Now as a professional zoo-keeper and then dog trainer, she encourages anyone interested in this line of work to volunteer as much as possible to gain experience.
Bronwyn Brennan 00:00
Hi again gang and welcome back to the next episode of Beyond the Green Line brought to you by the team here at Moss environmental. I’m Bronwyn Brennan and joining us today we have Simone Popp. Simone is an activist and animal trainer and all around legendary human being. Simone and I met during our undergrad that you said and today I am hoping that Simone will talk us through how a Sydney girl from the beaches ended up working as an animal trainer extraordinaire and I’m hoping that she will talk us through some of her favorite projects today.

Intro 00:36
Hi, and welcome. Buckle up for a new episode of beyond the green line, the only podcast hooking you up for a virtual coffee date with some of the leading changemakers industry experts and everyday activists in environmental and agricultural sciences. So pop in your headphones, go for a walk and get ready for inspiration, ideas, insights and real life stories beyond the green line we balance along.

Bronwyn Brennan 01:10
Hi, everybody, welcome back to the Beyond the Greenline podcast. In this episode today we are going to chat to Animal Trainer conservationist at all around. Excellent person. Simone. Simone, how you going? Hi, how you going? Simone and I met during our undergrad at University of Sydney. And today I’m hoping this Simone will walk us through how a Sydney girl from the beaches ended up working as an animal trainer extraordinary. And walk us through some of her favorite projects so far. So it’s amazing to jump in and say hi.

Simone Popp 01:44
Hello, everyone. Hello. It’s so nice to see you again. That’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.

Bronwyn Brennan 01:50
It is yes. Possibly not since graduation.

Simone Popp 01:53
Yeah, I don’t think so. And that was probably 15 1015. I’d prefer not to think about that. Yeah, no, that’s a good idea.

Bronwyn Brennan 02:03
So then, what prompted your move from agriculture to animal training? And was it something that always interested you?

Simone Popp 02:11
Yeah, so I guess I studied agriculture for years in Sydney, and then just kind of landed a job in a tourist and educational farm, which kind of promoted sustainable farming and it’s like Sydney kids where all your produce came from and, and you know, how farming worked. And I really loved being there. And I was there for about eight years. What I really love doing was animal health and animal training. So we would train our working dogs. So we had Kelpies and Border Collies to do our hurting demonstrations. And I remember when we’re in Uni, we, we went on some excursion and we did watch a demonstration one at one time, I remember just being like, really want to learn how to do that. So it was great that when I moved into this job, I was able to learn how to train the dogs to do herding. And then with lots of things to do with zoo keeping, because it was also a wildlife park. We had a lot of Australian natives, although training comes into that as well. So I really got interested in in the animal training part as well, which I loved.

Bronwyn Brennan 03:18
That’s amazing. It’s really interesting. Always I find to hear how people land where they land. Yeah. And always, inevitably, I find not where people thought they were going to lead when they first signed up for their first

Simone Popp 03:31
uni. Yeah, definitely. It’s funny that I actually, before I decided to study agriculture, I was either going to do that or I was going to do that tape or not the Taronga Zoo-Zoo Keeping course. And it’s just weird that I ended up doing agriculture, spent eight years on a tourism education farm and wildlife and then then got into zoo keeping. So I basically ended up being able to do both, which I find really awesome. And now that agriculture background and then moved into zoo keeping and the job I have now involves everything basically so it’s kind of all come together really nicely.

Bronwyn Brennan 04:11
That’s amazing. Coming back to Taronga because I know everyone always loves hearing about Taronga it’s a very popular, talk us through the work that I know you did there for a little while.

Simone Popp 04:21
So when I was at Taronga, I worked with the Angular team, which is a great team. And when we say angulates a lot of people don’t know what that means. It just means hoofed animals. So they had giraffe there, they had pygmy hippos and they had a bongo, which is kind of like a hoofstock, beautiful big antelope stripe, beautiful boy’s name was Ekundu. And I really enjoyed working there. They really promote conservation of all different types of species and they do a lot of good work and research and it was just a great place to work that I ended up having to move up to the Mid-North Coast and land myself a job at Billabong Zoo is the senior qual keeper and really felt passionate about that. And the plight of koalas

Bronwyn Brennan 05:10
Koalas, I think, in the last week have been listed as endangered in New South Wales, not nationally, which is interesting. So we would love to hear more about your work with koalas.

Simone Popp 05:22
Yeah, so we had koalas at the city farm that I worked at, I worked a little bit within there, and did a lot of work as at the at Billabong zoo as the senior koalas keeper and just fell in love with them. I just felt so passionate about them. And we’ve talked to anyone that wanted to listen about what they’re going through, and you know, what you can do to help them and yeah, like you said, in the last week, it’s come out that they have been listed as endangered on the east coast. So Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. And in the last decade, they’ve gone from being less concern to vulnerable and then to endangered. So in 10 years, they’ve dropped their numbers so significantly, and they describe it as in 2050. If we don’t do anything, they’re going to become extinct, which would be such a massive shame for our country. So yeah, basically, as a zookeeper, we would have breeding programs, and we would really promote conservation and through education. So by our keeper talks, and whoever would come in, and we’d have a chat to them, you know, we can tell what ordinary people can do to kind of help these guys out. But unfortunately, up here in 2019, 2020, probably got hit really badly with bushfires and we lost a lot of koalas through that which is very shame.

Bronwyn Brennan 06:46
That is a shame. Yeah. But the zoo was not impacted, which is

Simone Popp 06:51
No the zoo wasn’t impacted, but a lot of the surrounding areas were. And we actually with the current job that I have now we’re doing some post Kuala surveys, so using the detection dogs to find the koalas and see if they were coming back to areas that haven’t been impacted. So that was a really exciting and important project that I worked on.

Bronwyn Brennan 07:15
That isn’t amazing. Tell us more about your work with the detection dogs. And when we started teeing up this podcast you were on Lord Howe Island with the dogs, you want to talk a little bit about that project.

Simone Popp 07:26
Yeah, so for the last year, I’ve been working with a team called tight and training. And they’re based up here in Port Macquarie, we do a few jobs, or we get contracted by Local Land Services, national parks, and we’re also being contracted by the Lord Howe Island board. So basically, that two years ago, Lord Howe wanted to eradicate all the rats on the island. So the rats arrived through ships in like 1917, and had a massive impact on all the native species on the island, especially the first species, they totally wiped out like five species of birds, seven species of invertebrates, and were threatening so many more species. So they wanted to eradicate the rats. So they did a big eradication program. And what we do on our side, in Port Macquarie we use our detection dogs to do biosecurity work for the trader that takes all the cargo over the Lord Howe Island. So we’re checking for rats, mice, lizards, that could cause any problems over there. And we’re also checking the planes that fly from port to Lord Howe Island. And sometimes when we’re lucky, we get to head over to Lord Howe Island we help do some surveys of properties, and of bushland areas with some of the dogs that they’ve got over there. Or we take our own dogs and you know, checking for any signs of rats that could still be there. So rat nests, live rats, anything like that any sign we might see. I think it’s been over 100 days since they’d last seen a rat. So that’s really encouraging but you know, you keep wanting to you’ve got to keep checking because it’s a big island, and we want to make sure that they’re all gone. So that’s a really exciting project that we’re involved in. Because seeing the eradication program, there’s a Lord Howe Island woodhen that’s increased in numbers by 50%, or the bird species of their breeding programs have been improved. And they’re seeing like, all these snails that were impacted by the rats and the mice coming back. So it’s really nice to see

Bronwyn Brennan 09:33
That’s amazing and really exciting results to hear.

Simone Popp 09:37
Yeah, no, it’s great to see the effort, all the efforts that everyone on the project has been involved in, and you can so clearly see the evidence, and how important is to get rid of those invasive species.

Bronwyn Brennan 09:49
That’s so exciting and some really promising results. They can hopefully replicate elsewhere. They’re showing that it can be done.

Simone Popp 09:57
Yeah, exactly. It can be done. Yeah, yeah. And hopefully they’ll never see rat or a mice on the island again.

Bronwyn Brennan 10:03
That would be fantastic. I remember visiting Lord Howe Island years ago now, at least a decade ago. And there were signs everywhere about, you know, locking all your food up keeping everything sealed and making sure that there was nothing out for them. But it’s just not enough. Is it?

Simone Popp 10:18
Yeah, I don’t think that is enough to you know, get rid of them but it’s great to see that every since I’ve been there, you know, it’s just the most pristine, beautiful place and you would just never want anything bad to happen to any, any of the species on there.

Bronwyn Brennan 10:33
Absolutely. It was beautiful when I was there. I remember doing the math gala walk. And I swear my legs are shaky for two days afterwards.

Simone Popp 10:41
Yeah, I haven’t done that yet. But it is huge.

Bronwyn Brennan 10:45
And the topics

Simone Popp 10:47
That I’ll have to put on my bucket list for one time, like go over? Definitely.

Bronwyn Brennan 10:51
So Simone we discussed all of these are very exciting projects. What would you say was your favorite conservation project to date?

Simone Popp 11:00
I think my favorite conservation project is anything to do with koala work that we do. Yep. Like I said before, really passionate about the koala work. And when we were doing those post bushfire surveys, even though it was so upsetting, seeing so much land that had been completely burnt out and the devastating effects it had when we were going in and surveying areas that had koalas and we just didn’t know if they were going to come back to the area or were not. We were seeing still some presence of koalas in those areas. I don’t think when we did that survey, we saw any live koalas, which is the best thing that you can see, you know, seeing those life koalas is seeing them in the wild is such an awesome experience. But we were seeing lots of evidence. So you know, their scratch and all that kind of thing. So it was a little bit hopeful, you know that they were coming back into those areas that had been burned in, there was new leaf starting to grow on the trees. So it was kind of reassuring that, you know, they haven’t all been wiped out there still some. And so that was a really nice project to work on. We do have one of the dogs that that works with us or you know, in our team, she actually won the Canine Hero Awards at the Agricultural Sydney show, because of her work she did post bushfire so basically, you know, while the fires were going she was going into those areas and finding injured and sick koalas that were then taken to the koalas hospital. So we’re really proud of her. And you know, so many koalas were saved because of her and how she was able to find them. So even though I wasn’t, I wasn’t there in the team at that time. It was just it’s really awesome to know that , that part of our team was involved in.

Bronwyn Brennan 12:41
Yeah, that is amazing. That’s super cool. She must be a bit cleverer than my silly dog at home, I suspect. – I’ve got a dalmatian

Simone Popp 12:51
You’ve got a Dalmatian dog? They have an import role they say like a guarding dog, man.

Bronwyn Brennan 12:57
They are fire dogs.

Simone Popp 12:59
Yeah, fine dogs. They are important ,they do a good job.

Bronwyn Brennan 13:01
Now that we have silence probably less important.

Simone Popp 13:05
Yeah. Well still, still important I think – we’ve got to keep the morale up and with the morale.

Bronwyn Brennan 13:11
So when we talk about looking for koala sciences, scats or feces for our listeners, or what else would we be looking for?

Simone Popp 13:18
When weare looking for koalas we are targeting trees that they like. So there’s lots of different types of eucalyptus trees, but quite a few species they don’t need all of them. So we always target the trees that we know that they in light. So the tower woods in a swamp mahoganies and then you know, the dogs are trained to find and seek out scattered and all like koalas, then we can also kind of get a bit of an idea of you know, their scratch marks on a tree and all those sorts of things. But the biggest the biggest one for the dogs is that that koalas scats and the feces Yeah, has a really good strong smell. And they can detect it like it could be months old sitting there under leaves, and we can hardly see anything. And then they they’re bam, straight on it. So yeah, it’s amazing to watch them work on quality scat.

Bronwyn Brennan 14:07
That is very, very, very cool. So what training or skills or opportunities that you’ve received, through your career, what do you think has helped you most to land where you are today?

Simone Popp 14:21
I started work when I was young at a horse riding school and I was mucking out stables and kind of worked my way to instructing and I think that being a really hard worker in this industry is really important, you know, having a lot of variety and experiences of animals. So started off with horses, and then, you know, I was a vet nurse for a little bit and kind of went and did all these experiences and got that experience up because what they want to see in this industry is maybe not so much qualifications, but what kind of experiences or volunteering or work that you’ve done to kind of see You know, I have that, that kind of hands on experience. So I would advise anyone wanting to get into the dog training industry or zoo keeping industry to get as many experiences as you can. So do online courses, go, go volunteer at places, you know, go to dog clubs and see if they want any volunteers and all that getting that hands on experience or just kind of finding a job in an area that can be animal base. So you just have those that groundwork to really help you get through to a pretty tough industry to crack. But I think just being really hard working is, is a big key to finding success.

Bronwyn Brennan 15:43
I think that sounds really exciting. And I think that’s a really high quality advice for any industry.

Simone Popp 15:49
Yes, definitely. I think that, you know, potential employees really want to say that you are dedicated and you love what you do. And you know, and you’re going to work harder at that. Absolutely, definitely.

Bronwyn Brennan 16:00
Well, it’s a bit hard not to love what you do when you’re working with dogs every day and saving koalas. Yeah, I

Simone Popp 16:07
feel I’ve been really lucky in all my, in all my jobs that I loved every one of them. I don’t know how people go to work every day and don’t feel passionate for their job. So I feel like really, really lucky to have landed some great jobs, met some great people worked with amazing animals. I don’t know how people got the job and not like it.

Bronwyn Brennan 16:29
Do you have a single favorite animal not as in type of animal but a specific animal from your career?

Simone Popp 16:36
Yeah, there’s definitely animals that have stood out throughout my career. We had a donkey at the City Farm, who I just loved he just had lots of attitude and spunk. And we also had a working dog there and I thought that I would use every day for demonstrations. And she was just such a good little help with me. And then of course my dogs that I used to take with me to work every day as well. At The Zoo at Billabong Zoo. I fell in love with a koala there called Peta she was just I don’t know why she’s like my favorite, she’s just beautiful, loved her little snuggle in the morning and just had such a sweet attitude. So yeah, there’s definitely animals that stick out throughout the career. And yeah, those would be those would be some that come to mind. I’m sure there’s plenty more. And all the dogs that I work with now are just so amazing. And they all have you know, their, their amazing qualities and what you love about them, too. So the cheeky cheeky ones always keep you on your toes. So yeah, I know, lots of animals that stick with you and it’s always hard to leave a job when you leave because you are leaving the animals behind as well. But you can always we can always go back and visit

Bronwyn Brennan 17:48
soon. Thank you so much for that this has been a really fantastic chat. And I hope it’s got everyone thinking about some opportunities for people and things that they can do to help our koalas in particular, I think there’s probably things that we can all be doing. Did you want to expand any more on things that people can be doing for koalas?

Simone Popp 18:09
Yeah, so the biggest issue that they face is habitat loss. So I guess in terms of and you know, habitat loss is up here. That’s the big issue. But in terms of some of those little smaller issues, or I shouldn’t say small issues, but some of the other issues like they get attacked by people’s pets all the time, you know, dogs and cats. So we always try and educate people to you know, make sure your cats are locked up, especially at nighttime and your dogs are nice and secure. Teach your dogs a good recall. So they don’t go and attack, you know, koalas or have them on leash and don’t give them that opportunity to attack them as well. In those drought times, we were kind of educating that if you do have claws in your area, leave some water, you know, in a container up in a tree. So they can always come and grab that. And what else can we do planning native species in our backyards in our home, so especially all those eucalyptus species that koalas love to eat, and that can be really beneficial for them if you’re in an area that has flowers that even if you’re not just planting native species to help out birds and bees and all the other animals, those native animals can really beneficial to that awesome, smooth.

Bronwyn Brennan 19:22
Thank you so much for those tips. Thank you everybody for listening and joining us today. Please give our podcasts a follow and head on over to our socials or our website, if you would like to hear a little bit more about most environmental.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Simone. That was a fantastic chat. Thank you for listening, everybody. Please join us for our next episode for more inspirational stories, actionable tips, and unleashing the Eco warrior inside you. Until next time, thanks for listening. Please subscribe to our podcast and head on over to our socials to explore a little more about us. This has been Bronwyn Brennan will the beyond the grain line podcast

Outro 20:09
Thanks for listening to this episode of Beyond The Green Line brought to you by Moss Environmental, subscribe to our podcast for your weekly invitation to join the conversation. Until next time, keep thinking green.

About The Host

Bronwyn Brennan

Bronwyn Brennan

Bronwyn joined Moss Environmental in 2020 as a Senior Environmental Consultant. Bronwyn has ten years’ experience working across the agricultural, construction and landscape sectors throughout New South Wales. Bronwyn holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Sydney

Stay In The Loop

Stay up to date with new episodes, guest announcements and podcast news. Get updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Work with us

Moss Environmental can help you meet your regulatory requirements while ensuring that your projects are environmentally sound.

Binge Listen to More inspiring interviews