“Massacred” read the banner headline in the local newspaper — just the single word, as if describing an act of war. Below it was a photograph of dead penguins and other birds, the latest casualties in Australia’s long history of imported species decimating its native wildlife.
Foxes killed 180 penguins in that particular episode, in October 2004, but the toll on Middle Island, Victoria, Australia, kept rising. By 2005, the small island’s penguin population, which had once numbered 800, was below 10.
Today, their numbers are back in the triple digits and much of the credit has gone to a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh and his strong-willed sheepdogs.
“The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins,” said Marsh, whose long-unused birth name is Allan.
“They were desperate,” he said.
The farmer’s simple solution — deploy a particularly territorial breed of sheepdog to scare the foxes away — became local legend and, in September, the subject of an Australian film, Oddball, which fictionalized the story and made a lovable hero of one of the dogs. The strategy is now being tried elsewhere in Victoria, in hopes of protecting other indigenous species from nonnative predators.
Dozens of Australian mammal species have gone extinct since European settlers began arriving in the late 18th century, bringing cats, foxes and other predators new to the ecosystem.
A recently announced plan to cull millions of feral cats, which the government says prey on more than 100 of its threatened species, drew new attention to the problem, while infuriating some celebrity advocates of animal rights.
Little penguins, the smallest penguin species, were once common along Australia’s southern coast. However, when red foxes were imported for sport hunting in the 19th century, they found the tiny, flightless birds to be easy prey. So did cats and dogs. The penguins’ colonies on the mainland began disappearing, which is why most are now found on islands.
Middle Island, near the city of Warrnambool in Victoria, was home to a deafening population of the birds until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tidal patterns and increasing sedimentation began to make the small, uninhabited island accessible from shore. Foxes made their way there and the birds offered little resistance.
Marsh, who lives in Warrnambool, said he knew how to reverse that trend as soon as he heard about it. A farmer of free-range chickens, he had spent many long nights with a rifle trying to keep foxes away from his chickens.
It was in the middle of one of those nights that a better solution came to him.
“It was 3 o’clock in the morning and the neighbors had a damn dog, you could hear it barking,” he said.
“I was a bit slow off the mark. It took a few nights for me to realize it was barking at what I was trying to shoot,” he said.
Soon he had acquired his own Maremma sheepdog puppy. Named for the region northwest of Rome where they originated, Maremma were bred to protect and live among livestock. They develop a keen sense of territory and are vigilant against intruders, though amiable toward familiar people and animals.
The farm’s first Maremma, Ben, took quickly to his new task, scaring one of the intruders away from the farm and into a road.
“It got squashed,” Marsh said. “It was fox pizza.”
When the plight of Middle Island’s penguins became news, Marsh suggested that Maremma could protect the birds — which, he reasoned, are simply “chooks [chickens] in dinner suits.”
For a class assignment, David Williams, a university student who worked on Marsh’s farm, wrote up a proposal for deploying Maremma on the island and he later submitted a more formal version to the state environmental agency, but even as the penguin population kept dwindling, the approval process dragged on, as the plan was vetted by overlapping government entities.
“There was a lot of talking,” Williams said.
Finally, in 2006, the first Maremma was put to work: Oddball, a daughter of Ben — and the name of the new film.
Since then, Middle Island’s penguin population has rebounded to 150 and not one has been lost to a fox, Williams said.
He now works for Zoos Victoria, the operator of three zoos in the state.
Maremma are self-reliant animals; they can be left to defend a patch of land for long periods of time, with a supply of food and water that they know not to wolf down right away.
During the summer, when foxes pose the greatest danger to Middle Island’s penguins because of tidal patterns that form sandbars, the dogs can stay on the island for several days in a row, watching over the birds from a raised walkway.
Training them for the job involves introducing them to the penguin’s distinct odor.
“Penguins don’t smell particularly nice,” said Peter Abbott, manager of tourism services for the Warrnambool City Council.
“They look cute and cuddly, but they smell like dead fish,” he said.
Gradually, the dogs are taught to treat the penguins like any other kind of livestock, to be defended and not harmed.
Despite their decline on mainland Australia, little penguins are not considered threatened or endangered. However, the success of the Middle Island program is significant not just for its small population of little penguins, but also for the potential to replicate the model with species more at risk.
Zoos Victoria is now trying to use Maremma dogs to reintroduce to the wild the eastern barred bandicoot, a small marsupial not seen outside captivity since 2002.
Several previous attempts have failed, but Zoos Victoria, which has pledged to prevent the extinction of any terrestrial vertebrate in Victoria, hopes the dogs can make a difference.
A five-year trial is under way, with Williams training two puppies at Werribee Open Range Zoo in Werribee, a Melbourne suburb.
The puppies are to learn to bond with sheep, which will also be present at the three trial sites, and with bandicoots, which are shy, nocturnal creatures, said Kimberley Polkinghorne, communications manager for the Werribee zoo.
“This trial draws on the success of the Middle Island project,” she said.
“We are very excited about its potential to not just help bandicoots, but other threatened species as well,” she said.
On Middle Island, Oddball’s successors, Eudy and Tula — their names come from the word Eudyptula, the little penguin’s genus — are still keeping foxes away but, at 8 years old, are nearing retirement. Local groups managing the project recently raised more than US$18,000 online to buy and train two new Maremma pups. The fundraising effort got a lift from the film, a box-office success in Australia.
Oddball depicts its hero as a mischievous beast that stays one step ahead of the local dogcatcher before finding redemption by saving the penguins.
Oddball herself, now 14, is retired and lives under Marsh’s house.
“She comes out when she wants to,” he said. “She doesn’t do personal appearances.”
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