Jessie’s Legacy with Esther Matthews & Marisa Steynberg

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Esther Matthews and Marisa Steynberg about Jessie’s legacy and their book about her. 

Science Highlight: ⁠Scent detection dogs as a novel method for oestrus detection in an endangered species, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)⁠

Links Mentioned in the Episode:  ⁠⁠

Where to purchase the book: ⁠Amazon Kindle⁠, ⁠WWFSA ⁠| Email [email protected]

Where to find Marisa: ⁠Instagram⁠ 

Where to find Esther: ⁠Instagram⁠

You can support the K9 Conservationists Podcast by joining our Patreon at ⁠⁠

⁠K9 Conservationists Website⁠ | ⁠Course Waitlist⁠⁠Merch⁠ | ⁠Support Our Work⁠ | ⁠Facebook⁠ | ⁠Instagram⁠ | ⁠TikTok

Transcript (AI-Generated)

Kayla Fratt  00:10

Hello, and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcastm where we’re all about conservation detection dogs. I’m your host, Kayla Fratt, and I’m one of the cofounders of K9Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies and NGOs. I have officially started my PhD studies; we’re recording on October 19, which means that we’re going to be switching to an every other week publication schedule. Things have been really busy. So I’ll probably edit in a update into some of our earlier episodes to remind you all that now we’re going to be on an every other week schedule. Because yeah, it’s been over a month since school started and I have not yet. This is my first episode of recording.

Kayla Fratt  00:51

So today, I’m really excited. I’m going to be talking to Esther Matthews and Marisa Steynberg, about Esther’s dog, Jessie and their legacy in the conservation dog world, particularly in South Africa. And then the really beautiful illustrated children’s book that Marissa put together about Jessie and their work.

Kayla Fratt  01:12

But before we get into the episode, we are going to go through a science highlight. So this week we read a paper titled “Scent detection dogs as a novel method for oestrus detection in an endangered species, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).” This was written by Hannah Roberts, Kerry Fanson, Naomi Hodgins, Melissa Parrott, Pauleen Bennett and La Toya Jamieson and was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in Summer 2023. The basic question was whether or not constantly whether or not detection dogs can be used to identify the correct time to pair captive Tasmanian Devils for breeding purposes. This is important because Tasmanian Devils generally are solitary and will beat each other up pretty badly. If you put them in together when they are not receptive. They also are highly susceptible as a species to these contagious tumors. So the species is definitely in big trouble and they’re working hard to figure out how to improve their chances of survival with some captive breeding programs. So to quote from the abstract they quote, fecal samples were collected from 11 captive female female devils during the breeding season of 2020 and 2021. Three Dogs with prior detection experience were trained and subsequently assessed with 180 searches per dog on their ability to discriminate between estrus and non estrus devil fecal samples in a one sample setup. When assessed on training samples, dogs are able to correctly discriminate estrus from non estrus with a mean sensitivity of 69.1% and a mean specificity of 65.7%. When assessed on novel samples, their sensitivity to estrus dropped to a mean sensitivity of 48.6% however, they were still able to collectively correctly identify non estrus samples with a mean specificity city of 68.1%. The study is the first to explore detection dog’s ability to identify estrus and a captive breeding program for endangered wildlife, providing a promising tool for non invasive monitoring of reproductive status in wildlife. So this is a great paper. Really, really interesting work. Definitely a little less typical as far as the fieldwork end of things than what we cover here. So these dogs are primarily working in a lab with samples that the dogs have to respond yes or no to estrus or no estrus. So you might want to go back and re listen to our episode with Paul Bunker on go, no-go protocols, if that’s the sort of thing that you’re interested in, and again, you can find that paper in Frontiers in Veterinary Science published in 2023.

Kayla Fratt  03:36

So without further ado, Esther, and Marisa, why don’t we have each of you go ahead and introduce yourselves. We’re so excited to have you here on the podcast.

Esther Matthew (EM)  03:44

Hi, thanks, Kayla. So, I’m Esther Matthew and I work for the Endangered Wildlife Trust. And part of my job is to train scent detection dogs for conservation and research projects.

Marisa Steynberg  04:01

Hi, yes, I’m Marisa Steynberg. I’m a first year illustration student at open window Institute in Centurion. So at the moment, I am doing a lot of projects as the end of the year and we’re finishing off quite a few things. But yeah, I’m quite excited to see where this book will lead me for the future.

Kayla Fratt  04:26

Yeah, definitely. So Esther, why don’t we start out with you giving us a recap on Jessie’s life. People may remember that we did an episode together. Gosh, probably what, two or three years ago now about your riverine rabbit project, but I don’t think we talked nearly enough about Jesse’s earlier life and earlier training and any other projects that you all did together.

Esther Matthew (EM)  04:49

Yeah, so basically, I got Jessie the Border Collie in 2013. The idea was the reason why I got her was to be a working scene detection dog As part of my master’s degree on research on amphibians. So, in 2014, I started to her training. And basically, we did quite a few tests on on amphibian scenes and what dogs can detect and different dilutions and so on. And we published a paper around that quite recently. But Jessie assisted us in the field to find bullfrogs and African John bullfrogs. And they basically spent 11 months of the underground, and they can go as low down as two meters on the ground. So it’s really difficult to find them outside of breeding season where they above ground and in water pools.

Esther Matthew (EM)  05:45

And so the idea was to test if a dog could assist in surveys for the species, which was a protected species in the felting province of South Africa during the time of the study. And then so after the two years of doing that, as part of my master’s degree, Jessie graduated with me, we have some graduation photos together. And, and then I got a job at the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 2016. We moved to arid area called the Karoo in South Africa, a quite a rural area with Jessie, I said, I’ll take the job if I can take my dog with and, and they were very excited to find out that I actually have a scent detection dog and that I would be able to train her for other things.

Esther Matthew (EM)  06:36

So we started almost immediately and training her to help find a critically endangered species called riverine rabbits. So we did that for for quite a while it was a tricky, tricky training again, because the species, there is no no captive riverine rabbits in South Africa. And the only scent that was available was that of roadkill. So which is not ideal. And so it was a question of if we used roadkill st, if we would be able to find live rabbits. And so we also published on that, because we were able to, to use it in the end to help us find not only predicted areas, but also new areas for the species, which was great and contribute contributed to the conservation of the species.

Esther Matthew (EM)  07:28

And then subsequently to that, we also used Jessie’s nose to help us find locations for for endangered golden mole species on the west coast of South Africa. It’s a dune swimming species. And we were also looking for the endangered species, they are more common ones. So basically, Jessie’s job was just to tell us if the forest that we refined belong to that more common species or to the endangered species. So that was also a very interesting project. And that was also part of the the work with the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Esther Matthew (EM)  08:06

And then unfortunately, in 2021, Jessie was diagnosed with lymphoma. And we did chemo and she did well for about six months after the chemo, but then the cancer came back and and we lost Jessie in September of last year. And so that was during that time, or shortly after that, that Marisa contacted me and said that she’s interested in doing this book. And yeah, and she, she will tell you the rest of the story, but that is basically the life of Jessie. So, shortly after Jessie, shortly after we lost Jessie in September last year, Marisa contacted me about making a book to talk about the story of how Jessie contributed to the conservation of the riverine rabbits. And yeah, I think she can she can go on telling the story further from here.

Marisa Steynberg  09:07

Yeah, so I actually had no idea that it was so close to the passing of Jessie; well, I apologize for that. That’s quite, quite bad. No, yeah. So I’ve actually saw the video that the Endangered Wildlife Trust posted I think it was in 2019, about Jessie’s work and the entire process of this new training idea so that that was really cool when I saw that. So last year, I think the middle of last year, I decided to that want to do a series actually of the critically endangered species of South Africa, which there are actually not that many that I know of. I don’t know you guys probably know much more about that. But that’s when I came across the riverine rabbits on the IUCN Red List. And then I remember the story that about Jessie and I absolutely just knew that this this was the book. Yes. That’s when I contacted you. And I did not expect you to answer me back. But I was super excited when you did. And with all those beautiful photos that you also sent me that really drove the story forward. And I mean, just trying to capture chases essence in that story, was really what I tried to do. Yeah, even though I did not know. But yeah.

Kayla Fratt  10:48

Yeah, definitely. So yeah, tell us, you know, what? Why were you looking for a book about South African endangered wildlife? And, you know, I mean, I, to me, it feels obvious why you would want to write a book about Jessie. But yeah, what appealed to you about it? And, you know, kind of what goes into making a book like this? Cuz I don’t, I don’t even know where I would start.

Marisa Steynberg  11:16

A lot of research. Yeah, because I don’t work in the field like you guys, which I find really interesting what you do. But so it took a lot of research to try and see how it works. And trying to figure out what conservation projects have been done with them. And trying to capture that in the book. So when I looked at this project, it was quite an easier book to write because there was a lot of info about it, where there is not that much information about other endangered species. So that was a great, big factor that helps me to write the book. And, yeah, as I said, the photos that Esther’s sent me that really drove the story forward. So I really like to work visually. So I look at photos and see what she does, trying to see the kind of dog that she was. And then from there, I can I do a lot of rough sketches. Just capturing the dog in the movement. And then I started plotting out the entire pictures, actually, before I did the story. So I’m more of an illustrator than a writer. But so that is the process. Yeah, that really, really helps me.

Kayla Fratt  12:42

Yeah. Wow. And so as you’re putting together this story, is this story primarily? I guess. Yeah. What is the outline of the story? Does it start with Jessie’s training? And when Jessie and Esther met? Or does it start with the project? You know, what, what is the historic? And who is this? Is this book for? Is this a kid’s book? Or?

Marisa Steynberg  13:06

Yeah, yeah, it’s a children’s book. So it starts, it’s almost like I think two or three days in the life of Jessie how I imagined it, when she did the work in the camera. So it starts off, where she’s in the car, and they’re traveling to the Karoo. And then it goes on, like how she is struggling to find them and getting distracted by all the different weird scents that the Karoo has. And then eventually, at the end, she manages to find one of these incredible rabbits. Who actually, yeah, and then there was this photo that is sent me that she’s giving a high five to Jessie. And I thought that should really be the last image. So after she found the rabbits, and it was this whole exciting affair. They give a high five and then at the end, I really talk about it’s so the whole book is written out of the perspective of Jessie. So at the end, it’s like she’s saying, she’s glad that she found this, but she can really see the impact that we as humans have on the land that is creating a problem for the riverine rabbits. Yeah, so I really wanted to try to get that conservation inside the book without making it too grown up. I don’t know how else to say, too professional, that you can understand it, even if you don’t really know how everything works in the conservation field. So the age for this book, probably if you read it to the children, then it would be from age four and up, but self-reading, between seven and nine.

Kayla Fratt  14:57

Yeah. Awesome. And Esther, what was kind of your experience going through and helping create this book? You know, did you I just I have to imagine that someone would reach out to me and asked about either, I would have so much to say I would, I would be totally useless because I would just want them to write, you know, seven volume chapter book about my dog’s life. How did you go about working with Marisa and keeping yourself on track?

Esther Matthew (EM)  15:27

it was a very interesting process, because I actually feel I contributed very little to the book. Marisa, basically, you know, she came up with the idea. She asked for a few photos. And then near the end, I basically just, she wrote the story herself. And near the end, I just reviewed the story to look at, you know, the factual components to it, keeping in mind that, you know, it is a children’s book, it has to be exciting and, and, you know, it doesn’t have to be perfect in terms of facts. But you know, things as describing the riverine rabbit, the right features and things being highlighted, I think that was important for me, but I mean, I, I really actually contributed very little to the book. So I give all credit to Marisa. And I think the other thing is that, I don’t know from a resource perspective, but from what I can see, it’s, it’s already having quite a big impact. And people are very interested in the book. And I have friends of mine sending me videos of the kids reading the books and things like that. So. So it really had a nice spin off. And I think it’s a nice way to, to give a tribute to the life of Jessie.

Kayla Fratt  16:48

Yeah, that’s amazing. So yeah, maybe each of you could share maybe some of your some or one of your favorite moments from the start of this project, or estero, if you’ve got any favorite stories that you just want to share about your time with Jessie. Yeah, I’d love to hear it.

Esther Matthew (EM)  17:07

Okay, Marissa, you can maybe go through it.

Marisa Steynberg  17:11

Okay, um, I think that the best part for me was, initially, when I found the story about what Jessie did, I think, in 2019, right? When you when you posted that video, that to me was the best part. Because I’ve always done tricks and training with my my Border Collie, actually. And it’s just so incredible. The training that goes into this whole project, like off training, how to find the right rabbits. So for me seeing that, and seeing how much impact it is and how much you can achieve through dog training. That to me was really, really the best part of this whole, this whole project. Yeah.

Esther Matthew (EM)  18:02

For me, I think, you know, I had so many special moments with Jessie and she was like, she was part of me. So it’s difficult to, to think how to, you know, leave a legacy for her. And I think Marisa came at the right time asking the right questions and produced this amazing book. I think, for me, the first time I saw the sketches, I was like, you know, that’s me and Jessie, she conveyed us in a, in a way that it looked like us. And it’s and that felt like, our relationship was conveyed in a in a, in a correct way, if I can say it like that. So I think that was that was really great. But because it’s it’s too, I mean, I haven’t met Marisa in person at all, so. So it’s two separate people from separate worlds doing completely different things. I mean, I can’t draw a stickman and, and Marisa with amazing illustrations to tell the story that I couldn’t tell so. So I think it’s a really cool story that, you know, two people from kind of different parts of South Africa could pull together to make this happen. And I think the other really nice thing is that not only did Marisa sent me a copy of the book for free, she also she’s also said that she would give 10% of the profits for the work that we’re doing with the dogs, though so obviously I’m continuing work with my other dogs and and with the endangered wildlife just still doing endangered species work and, and some of the profits of this book will go towards that as well, which is, you know, everything I could have hoped for.

Kayla Fratt  19:52

Yeah, that’s amazing. Yeah, there’s there’s just so much work still to be done, but also it’s amazing. Trying to get to see, you know, dogs like Jessie and the work that you both did together being memorialized and being shared with kids. You know, this is the sort of book that I would have loved to have on my shelf when I was when I was a little girl. And I think my parents would have, this would have been one of those books that they would have found for me when I was at that age. So that’s just really, really neat. So Esther, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your, your younger crew members and what you are working on now as well then.

Esther Matthew (EM)  20:31

Yeah, sure. So So I have two younger boys. I have an older Border Collie, but he’s retired. And then I have two younger Border Collies, one of which I’m quite actively already working with. She’s called Delta, she’s a brown and white border collie. And she’s about two years old now. And we are already working on way too many projects. But two of the interesting things that we’re using her for at the moment is also similar to Jessie’s work with doing riverine rabbit scat detection. So DNA research, then we’re also working with her for endangered tortoise species detection in the field for research and monitoring.

Esther Matthew (EM)  21:18

And then more recently, we are using her to assist at roadblocks and courier companies and so forth in the fight against succulent plant poaching in South Africa, that is taking over quite drastically. And and quite shockingly, I didn’t even know the stats before joining this project, which is in in collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust canine conservation unit, which I’m not part off, but they’ve they’ve involved me and my dog for the specific project. And just to give ideas that they, for example, they would find poacher with 23,000 plants of the same plant that got removed from from an arid area in South Africa. So it’s really it’s a big scale, poaching. And as far as I know, it’s the first time that dogs are being used to combat plant poaching. And it’s definitely the first time that these three dogs are being trained to find succulents in South Africa. So yeah, we’re working with the police and the traffic department and the conservation authorities to try to combat this problem as well.

Esther Matthew (EM)  22:33

And then I have a younger dog, Dash, as well. And he’s still in training. He’s also going to help with the tortoise work. And then funnily enough, he might also be roped into some amphibian work. So where Jessie started, it’s making a full circle for me and conservation. So there are a few things in the pipeline, including some some work on beetles as well. But yeah, it’s it’s like way too many projects, but all of them really, really exciting.

Kayla Fratt  23:08

Oh, yeah, that’s amazing. Yeah, that’s, it’s been fun to watch delta and dash growing up on Instagram. They’re both very, very handsome little dogs. Yeah. So Marisa, do you have any other projects that you’re working on right now that you’d like to give us an update on?

Marisa Steynberg  23:26

Um, well, I’m busy halfway busy with the next book actually in the series. So not a lot yet to talk about. But just watch my Instagram and then be updated for everything.

Kayla Fratt  23:44

What is your Instagram? I don’t think I follow you.

Marisa Steynberg  23:48

Let me tell you, so it is rs.art_marisa.steynberg. So if you just double check that. Okay.

Kayla Fratt  23:57

Thank you. And then yeah, so step two on. It came up right away once I did the art. Oh, yes. There’s the book right away. And it’s just so beautiful. I really everyone who’s listening needs to go look at it. And so how does someone acquire a copy of this book, if that’s something that they’re interested in doing? Yeah.

Marisa Steynberg  24:20

So at the moment, it is being sold at Love Books in Melville, as well as the yes main bookshop in heartbeat heartbeats. And then also, just through email, link me as well. And hopefully, in the next month, I’ll also upload online versions onto Amazon. So it’s easily accessible for people from different countries. Of course.

Kayla Fratt  24:52

Yeah, definitely. Because yeah, and I think what we can do, we were already coordinating, trying to get some copies over here to the US, so if anyone is interested, and can’t figure out how to get it for themselves in the US, just send me an email. And we can put together a big old list of people. And we’ll figure out how to get, you know, maybe 20 copies all over here at the same time or something like that.

Marisa Steynberg  25:12

Yeah, that’ll be cool. I was trying to figure out how to send them to you.

Kayla Fratt  25:18

It’s so expensive to like, the courier stuff. Africa to the US is just crazy. I mean, I could just go pick them up in person.

Esther Matthew (EM)  25:32

You can come and visit as well. Yeah.

Kayla Fratt  25:36

I don’t know when I have time, or money, but that would be more fun. Yeah, well, is there anything that either of you wanted more that you wanted to share about the process about book about Jessie? As we’re kind of wrapping up here?

Marisa Steynberg  25:55

Yeah, no, I think we covered covered a lot. I really, really enjoyed listening to Esther’s stories about Jessie, that was really beautiful. Yeah, and nothing more from my side. There’s no from you, Esther.

Esther Matthew (EM)  26:09

No, no, I think I think we’ve covered most of it. I mean, I’m happy to answer any additional questions, but I think we gave enough info on Jessie and on the book and how it came to be. So yeah, I’m happy.

Kayla Fratt  26:28

No, I think yeah, we really just kind of wanted to talk a little bit about the book. And I think what we’ll do as well is we’ll make sure to link the original episode about your work with the riverine rabbits in the show notes so people can go back and listen to that again. And remind people where to find you online. So we’ve got Marisa’s Instagram and Esther, where can people keep up with you online?

Esther Matthew (EM)  26:51

Yeah, you have my my Instagram. That’s probably the best way to follow me. And then I don’t know, as last time if I shared the research papers with you about the rabbits and the frog stuff. So I can’t remember because that could also be valuable to your listeners.

Kayla Fratt  27:08

Yeah, we would love that. If you can send it over. I’ll put it in the list for for some science highlights for upcoming episodes. Okay, cool.

Esther Matthew (EM)  27:17

I’ll send you the two links to the rabbit one and amphibian.

Kayla Fratt  27:22

Yeah, that would be great. Yeah, I mean, I think yeah, we were going to talk a little bit about Jessie a little bit about the book. And I think we did that. So unless I’ve forgotten anything. I think we’re good to go.

Marisa Steynberg  27:33

Awesome, thank you. Thank you, Kayla, for your time.

Esther Matthew (EM)  27:36

Yeah, thank you.

Kayla Fratt  27:37

For all of our listeners at home, as always, you can find the show notes with links to everyone’s social media and past episodes, and our course at Patreon, and all of that sort of stuff at You can find us on social media, at k9conservationists, and I hope that this episode has you inspired to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set. I think Marisa is a great example of how it doesn’t necessarily have to be training dogs and bushwhacking over mountain ridges in order to make a huge impact on this field with the greater goals of conservation in mind. So thank you both for everything that you do, and we’ll talk again soon. Thank you!