Dogs and birds are not always good companions. Dogs and wild seabirds? You must be joking! Whose dog hasn’t bounded around at the beach, sending up flurries of panicked gulls? However, in Australia, a dog/bird experiment with potentially global significance for conservation is taking place. On a tiny island near the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool, Maremma Sheepdogs (livestock guardian dogs) are hard at work protecting Little Penguins, the smallest of the penguin species. And not only are the birds thriving and breeding, predation losses from foxes — their chief killers — have ceased.
Maremmas have been traced back 2,000 years to the Italian region of Abruzzo, where they defended herd animals from thieves and wild predators, notably wolves. Prized for their protective skills, they were successfully introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s and later, Canada, South Africa and South America. Australia first imported them in 1982.
With their floppy ears, shaggy, white coats and placid demeanor, Maremmas look unthreatening and act calmly around sheep, goats and poultry. Unlike herding breeds that nip and chase, Maremmas do not confront livestock but integrate with them, forming social bonds.
Some of this is heredity; the dogs are bred to be docile. They also bond to the animals they’re to look after so they identify them as members of their pack. This bonding takes place through the critical period of socialization — eight to 16 weeks — until the dogs are about 12 months old. During this time, they are monitored closely for harmful play behavior. The dogs scent-mark their territory, indicating their boundaries to potential predators, and disrupt hunters by vigorous barking. They defend rather than act as aggressors.
As Sydney, Australia, Maremma breeder Cecilia McDonald says, “The dogs work by instinct. But they need to be introduced to the stock they’re looking after so they can differentiate the predators from what is to be protected.”
In 2005, the Little Penguins of Middle Island were in desperate need of protection. One of the world’s most loved animals, this penguin species lives only in New Zealand and southern Australia. With their cute waddle and fascinating life cycle, they’re incredibly popular: the colony at Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, attracts a halfmillion visitors annually.
Middle Island, just beyond the Warrnambool breakwater in Stingray Bay, is a very different place. Uninhabited, forbiddingly steepsided and only 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres), its south face backs onto the wild Southern Ocean, into which the penguins dive up to 60 meters (roughly 197 feet) for fish and squid. Little Penguins had raised chicks in burrows near the island’s sandy summit for decades, the colony peaking at around 1,500 individuals. In the 1990s, when volunteers began record keeping, 700 penguins lived there.
At low tide, when the channel separating it from land is less than six inches deep, Middle Island becomes accessible to an introduced species, the European red fox, with disastrous consequences. For several years, the foxes wreaked havoc, killing dozens of penguins in unpredictable, nocturnal sprees. At the same time, human use of the fragile island increased, and burrows were trampled, crushing penguin eggs and chicks. In response, the Warrnambool City Council tried various predator-control methods (which failed) and built a 280-meter (919-foot) boardwalk to keep people off the rookery area. Even so, from 2000 to 2005, penguin numbers plummeted to fewer than 10. The colony was at the point of no return.
Enter Dave Williams. The environmental science student was working part-time on an organic egg farm, where Allan Marsh, his employer, used Maremmas for fox control. Hearing of the penguin massacres, Marsh made a perceptive remark: “All they need is a couple of [Maremma] dogs on that island.”
Williams agreed. He approached the Warrnambool City Council in 2005, asking to test the idea. After lengthy discussion, the council decided to give the dogs a four-week trial. Oddball, an experienced chicken guardian, was the first chosen for penguin duty. Six years — and six dogs — later, the experiment continues.
Initially, Williams camped on the island and supervised Oddball to determine her level of affinity with the seabirds. Things went so well that after a week, he left the dog alone at night to do her work.