Maremma Sheepdogs: Penguin Protecting Pups
The Australian pups that keep predators away.
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If you’re reading this, you probably believe that dogs are bona fide heroes. In addition to the traditional ways we define “working dogs” (bomb sniffing, etcetera), pups have long been used to guard livestock — and more recently, they have been tasked with protecting endangered big cats, like cheetahs, in Africa. Conservation pups are also being trained to help wildlife by sniffing out poachers' contraband and searching for animal droppings for scientific research.
So when Southern Australia's Middle Island was faced with a rapidly declining Little Penguin population, sheepdogs were unsurprisingly the answer. These small penguins were once common along Australia's southern coast. But when red foxes were imported for sport hunting in the 19th century, colonies on the mainland disappeared, leaving most of them on islands.
Now that’s changing: Middle Island once had 800 resident penguins, but the number dwindled to below ten in 2005 as shifting tidal patterns and increasing sedimentation made the island accessible from the shore. In 2015 their numbers were back in the triple digits, and much of the credit has gone to a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh. His story is finally being told in the Australian movie, Oddball.
Swampy was first introduced to Maremma sheepdogs when he got a pup named Ben to protect his free-range chickens from foxes. When he heard about the penguin's plight, he knew dogs like Ben could help.
One of his farm workers, university student David Williams, wrote a proposal to the state environmental agency for using the livestock guardian dogs on the island. Although it seemed like an obvious solution to some, the approval process dragged on, even with the penguin population continuing to dwindle. They were afraid no one would listen until the penguins were completely gone.
But finally, in 2006, the proposal was approved and the first Maremma was put to work — Ben's daughter, Oddball. Since then the penguin population has rebounded to 150, and not one has been lost to a fox.
Maremma dogs are ideal for the job since they are self-reliant and can be left to defend land for long periods of time. Apparently, they know to not finish their supply of food and water right away. Training them involves introducing them to the penguin's distinct fishy odor. Gradually, they learn to treat the penguins like any other livestock to protect.
Oddball retired to live with Swampy. Her successors, Eudy and Tula, continued the work protecting penguins in her stead. To secure their future replacements, the local groups that manage the project raised more than $18,000 to buy and train new pups.
More recently, Tula and Eudy passed on the baton, retiring in 2019 and 2020. In June 2021, Eudy died at the age of 12 of an aggressive form of cancer — she was the longest-serving Maremma. The legacy these dogs have created is to help conserve an endangered species.
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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.