Did You Know Maremma Sheepdogs Saved Penguins?
The canine kingdom is packed with feel-good stories about dogs and their heroic deeds. Still, only a few stories are as inspiring as the ones about the big dogs and Victorian penguins. If you haven’t heard this before, you might want to learn a bit more about the gentle nature and protective instincts of the Maremma Sheepdogs.
The odd couple
When we think about dogs and guarding, we mostly think about dogs guarding humans or livestock. In fact, most livestock guardian dog breeds are bred to defend livestock from large predators like wolves, bears, or even cheetahs. Around 300 Kangals (Anatolian Shepherds) were sent to Kenya to guard livestock and farms against cheetahs. The cheetah conservationists and farmers were happy because these powerful dogs drove cheetahs off, and farmers didn’t have to kill them to protect their livestock.
However, we rarely think about dogs guarding penguins, especially large dogs like the Maremma Sheepdogs. But that is exactly what happened on the Middle Island in Southern Australia. Middle Island is a tiny island uninhabited by humans. The island is only 100 feet away from the mainland. That is where a colony of Victorian penguins decided to settle.
The problem for these tiny adorable animals started around the year 2000 when the sea’s natural current resulted in the sand build-up in the narrow gap between the island and the mainland. Before that, the world’s smallest penguins were fairly protected from land predators by 100 feet of water. Unfortunately, foxes discovered that the passage becomes dry during low tides, and it leads them to free and easy meals.
Middle Island penguin colony
The Middle Island penguin colony had hundreds of penguins. When the conservation efforts started, this tiny island was home to about 800 penguins. These endangered penguins live in Australia and New Zealand, and they are the world’s smallest penguins. Like other penguins, these ones mate for life, and they tend to return to the same nesting area year after year. Unfortunately, their luck completely changed when foxes discovered them, and the slaughter was unimaginable.
The leader of the Penguin Preservation Project, Peter Abbott, said,
"We went from a point where we had around 800 penguins down to where we could only find four. In our biggest bird kill, we found 360 birds killed over about two nights. Foxes are thrill killers. They'll kill anything they can find."
The future seemed very bleak for the poor penguins, and there was little hope for them if they were left unprotected. Luckily, an Australian farmer had a brilliant idea. He was a chicken farmer who had Maremma Sheepdogs that were trusted with protecting his chickens from foxes. When Abbott was asked about these dogs, he said,
"In Australia, those dogs are generally used for chicken protection or goats or sheep."
The first Maremma Sheepdog ever to come to Middle Island was called Oddball. He made a massive impact from the moment he stepped on the Middle Island. Abbott and the rest of his colleagues immediately saw changes in the fox’s behavior. He said,
"Leading up to when the dog went on the island, every morning we'd find fox prints on the beach. Putting a dog on the island changed the hierarchy. The foxes can hear the dogs barking, they can smell them, so they go somewhere else."
The Maremma Sheepdog is a fairly large dog breed that has a distinct protective temperament. It is a breed used for protecting livestock against much larger predators than foxes. Still, their effectiveness in saving penguins cannot be denied. These dogs can reach 29 inches, and larger male specimens can weigh 100 pounds. A tiny fox doesn’t stand a chance against these giants.
If you want to learn more about these stunning dogs, check out the full Maremma Sheepdog profile.
After introducing Maremma Sheepdogs to the Middle Island, there hasn’t been a single penguin kill. In 2021, three adult Maremma Sheepdogs are patrolling Middle Island, and they are guarding these adorable tiny penguins. The three dogs are in rotation, and two have to be on guard at any time. They are all related, and their breeders are known to produce outstanding Maremma guards.
The best possible news is that after introducing the Maremma Sheepdogs on the Middle Island, not only are there no cases of penguin murders, but their number grew from 4 to 200 by 2015. Unfortunately, 2020 wasn’t the best season ever for tiny penguins. The smallest number ever returned for breeding, only around 70 - 100. Nevertheless, those that have arrived are protected by the mighty Maremma Sheepdogs.
World Dog Finder team