A Maremma sheepdog snuggles with a fairy penguin in Australia. Image courtesy Robin Sharrock.
You’ve probably heard of sheepdogs that guard sheep. But on a small island off the coast of Australia, these specially trained pups protect penguins from foxes.
About 800 fairy penguins, also known as little penguins, once nested on Australia’s Middle Island. They are the smallest species of penguin in the world. By 2005, there were fewer than 10 left on the island.
The problem started when people brought red foxes to Australia in the 1800s. The foxes made their way to Middle Island and began killing off penguins and other native (living or growing naturally in a certain region) wildlife. Local officials wondered what could be done.
In 2004, a local farmer named Allan “Swampy” Marsh had an idea. He suggested training Maremma sheepdogs to protect the penguins. Marsh was using the dogs on his farm to guard his chickens from foxes. At first, local officials said no to the plan because they didn’t think it would work. But they changed their minds when the penguins had almost completely disappeared.
The powers that be wouldn’t listen to me until it got down to six penguins,” Marsh told The New York Times.
The first sheepdog went to work on Middle Island in 2006, and dogs have been on duty ever since. The dogs bark at and chase foxes to scare them away. Thanks to the sheepdogs, the number of fairy penguins on Middle Island has increased. Today, close to 200 penguins live on the island. In fact, officials report that not one penguin has been killed since the dogs have been on the job.
Eudy and Tula, the two dogs currently patrolling Middle Island, are now 8 years old. They are almost ready to retire. Local groups are trying to raise the $25,000 needed to buy and train two new pups.