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By Warrnambool City Council (Maremmas Tula and Eudy) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dogs protect penguins on Middle Island, Victoria, Australia

By Marilyn Miller

Who doesn’t love penguins? The flippered, flightless seabirds are just so cute with their goofy little waddling walk and their love of being tickled by humans. Climate changes may be threatening the population, but on Middle Island, Victoria, Australia, the threat was different: foxes (introduced to the island by guess who — humans.) and humans. Foxes find penguins to be a fine dinner, and humans heedlessly crush the eggs and breeding grounds under their big booted feet.

In the early 2000s, foxes and tourism on Middle Island were eroding the numbers of Little Penguins, so named because they are the smallest penguin, running about two pounds. Local authorities worried about extinction, justifiably so, because by 2005, there were only ten Little Penguins left on the island. However, a local chicken farmer reported successfully using guard dogs of a specific breed, the Maremma, to keep the foxes from killing his chickens.

Authorities adopted a two-pronged action plan. They closed the island to tourism (you can now schedule a supervised tour) and they brought in the Maremmas.

Result: success. As of 2015, there were more than 500 Little Penguins on the island.

Maremma dogs, also known as Italian sheepdogs, are big (about 100 pounds) with a lot of dense, long, harsh hair covering a thick undercoat. They are intelligent, loyal, and moderately affectionate, but they are determined (that is to say, stubborn) and are not for the amateur dog lover. Exceptionally skillful training is required. They need a lot of exercise and a lot of space, and don’t do well in hot weather. This is a working dog.

The dogs on Middle Island work five days a week during the penguin’s breeding season, and the rest of the time are on-shore, cared for, exercised, trained, and loved. They provide educational opportunities for tourists as well.

Let’s hear it for the dogs, and for the human authorities who took a chance on an unusual idea and in so doing, saved a little bit of the world.

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