How a Chicken Farmer and His Dog Helped Save an Island's Penguins

Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0

Southern Australia’s penguins once faced a crafty foe: the red fox, which was imported for sport hunting in the 1800s. Over the years, foxes massacred the birds, and penguin colonies along the coast gradually dwindled. The remaining penguins lived on islands, which eventually became accessible to other animals, thanks to built-up sedimentation and changes in the tide.

By the mid-2000s, foxes had made their way onto Middle Island, which lies off Victoria. In one year, they killed 180 penguins. By 2005, the island’s penguin population dropped from 800 to below 10. However, the New York Times reports that the birds found an unlikely savior in a local chicken farmer.

Known as “Swampy Marsh,“ the farmer had spent many an hour fighting foxes away from his poultry. He eventually traded in his rifle for a Maremma sheepdog named Ben—a breed that’s trained to protect livestock, and is capable of guarding territories for days at a time.

When Swampy Marsh caught wind of the penguins’ strife, he partnered with the state environmental agency to deploy Ben’s puppy, Oddball, against the foxes. That was in 2006. Since then, Middle Island’s penguin population has rebounded to 150, the Times reports. A successful Australian film called Oddball was recently filmed about the triumph, and now Maremma sheepdogs are being used in other regions of Victoria to safeguard additional indigenous species—like a marsupial called the eastern barred bandicoot—from foreign predators like cats, foxes, and dogs.

Oddball is now retired, but her legacy lives on. Two other sheepdogs continue to guard Middle Island, and local fundraising endeavors have raised enough money to buy two new pups. The future looks promising for the island’s penguins—and for that matter, its many other native animals.

[h/t New York Times]