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Big Dogs Saving The World's Smallest Penguins

Off the south coast of Western Australia lies the Recherche Archipelago, and Middle Island - where the penguins live - is the largest in the island chain. It's now also home to a pair of Maremma dogs.

Dog lying beside two little penguins on Middle Island
Middle Island Project | Facebook

And it's Middle Island that's home to the Little Penguin which, as the name suggests, is the world's smallest, and it's the only place in Australia where they live. However, two decades ago, sedimentation and tidal patterns created a short window during the year when a tidal causeway allowed access to Middle Island from the mainland, which foxes quickly discovered and used to devastate this ground-nesting bird population.

Thankfully, on the mainland, a local chicken farmer named Swampy Marsh - who had no professional background in conservation - came to the rescue. After years of raising thousands of free-range chickens he knew how to outfox foxes.

Marsh used Maremma dogs as guardians to protect his flock and he figured that since little penguins are equally as defenceless against foxes, the same protection scheme would work.

And it did; though officially no dogs were allowed on Middle Island, the severity of the little penguins’ plight convinced the local council to give it a go. Marsh then got to work with Oddball, his dog.

Their success was immediate and sustained. It completely stopped foxes raiding the island and soon Oddball’s role was professionalized, creating the Middle Island Project for breeding these Maremma dogs for use in protecting Middle Island. It has been so successful that not a single fox attack has taken place since - allowing the island’s penguin population to flourish.

The dogs don’t actually attack the foxes, they just hang out on the island in pairs. If they smell a fox in the distance, their deep, basso barks are enough to scare the predators away. Conservationists ensure the dogs can take a few days off, and have everything they need to do their job, including food, water, shade, and company.


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