Man’s best friend is proving to be a best friend to endangered wildlife as well — namely little penguins (Eudyptula minor) of Australia’s Middle Island. Two Maremma sheepdogs, bred to guard against wolves in Italy’s mountains, have helped save the penguin colony from collapse, according to an article published last week in the New Zealand Herald.
The penguin population on the island plummeted to just four birds in 2005 from more than 700 when volunteers counted four years prior. The culprit behind the penguins’ demise was the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes), an introduced species that would invade the small rocky island during low tide. Efforts to eradicate the foxes included shooting and poisoning, but to no avail.
Then in 2006, Dave Williams, an environmental science student working part-time at a free-range egg farm, approached city council with a proposal. He suggested using Maremma sheepdogs — the same breed his employer used to guard chickens — to guard the penguins. The council subsequently agreed to a month-long trial run. Seven years later, the program is still going strong.
Maremmas are unlike most herding breeds, which nip and chase flock. Instead, they bond with the animals they protect, making them ideal guardians. Since the dogs were introduced on Middle Island, there hasn’t been a single fox kill and the penguin colony has rebounded to a stable 200 birds.
But the rebound didn’t occur without setbacks. The first two dogs introduced to the island — Oddball and Missy — abandoned their post and swam back to the mainland. They were replaced with two younger dogs, Electra and Neve. Under their watch, several penguins were found dead. Authorities discovered a few people had trespassed onto the island to play with the dogs that in turn tried to play with the penguins, frightening them to death. Other penguins succumbed to stress-induced injuries as the dogs tried to protect them.
The current dog duo — siblings Eudy and Tula — were socialized with the penguins as two month-old puppies. They’ve been patrolling the island during breeding season for four years, marking their territory with their scent and barking at intruders. When they’re not on the island, they spend their time on a farm guarding free-range chickens.
Although the Maremmas have been highly effective at protecting the penguins, community support is vital to the project’s success. The fox population is thriving and still poses a threat to the penguins. Ian Fitzgibbon, a city council employee involved with the project for the last seven years, said no one can afford to let their guard down. “When foxes were at their peak in the early 2000s we had incidents where they killed more than 100 penguins in one night,” he told the New Zealand Herald. “When you take that into consideration, and the fact we now have around 200 penguins, it still might only take two or three nights for the colony to be wiped out.”