Friday, 13 July 2007

Happy Feet, Happy paws

Ori Golan meets a Maremma dog who saved a colony of little penguins from extinction. A furry tail with a happy end.

The city of Warranbool is a picturesque coastal village in the southern state of Victoria, Australia. In the 1990s it had a flourishing population of fairy penguins in the area, making it a feature of the area and bringing tourists to watch these fun-sized penguins, as they returned at dusk from their day’s fishing to Middle Island - a small island about 100 metres offshore.
A number of years ago the fairy penguins begun to fall prey to foxes and dogs and their numbers swiftly depleted. From an estimated population of 2000 in 1990, only 27 were recorded last year.
"The local rags were full of stories about the latest attack on these little mites" says resident of Warranbool Allan Marsh, fondly known as ‘Swampy’. "The foxes would swim across to the island and feed on them". The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) tried baiting the pests and fumigating local fox dens, but all to no avail: the foxes returned and the mass kills continued.
Then Swampy hit upon an idea to prevent these scenes of caranage and reverse the decline of the fairy penguin colony which was well on its way to extinction in the area.
A chicken farmer, for over a decade he has kept four Maremmas to protect his chickens against predators which include foxes, dingoes and eagles. "These sleepy looking dogs", he says pointing to Missy, who is fast asleep on a patch of grass, "will get up at all hours of the night to protect the chooks and ward off intruders. And on a number of occasions we would find the carcass of an unfortunate fox who wasn’t quick enough".
Originally from Italy, these beautiful, quiet, but courageous dogs have been guarding sheep for over two thousand years. Unlike Border Collies, Maremmas don’t herd or chase sheep. Instead, they spend their days dozing, or walking among the flock, unless they perceive a nearby threat to their patch. Then they will attack mercilessly. Perhaps the greatest working trait of the Maremma is their absolute intolerance to all predators while displaying extraordinary loyalty, patience and kindness to the flocks they protect.
Swampy figured that Oddball, his 7 year old Maremma, could do the same for the penguins. "The penguins are part of the Warrnambool community and everyone feels pretty strongly about them," he explains. After protracted negotiations, he persuaded the Warrnambool City Council environment along with the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), to allow him to camp with Oddball on the small island during the night. And so, for a trial period of one month, last December, Oddball was the island’s dog keeper. "Her first encounter with the penguins earned her a peck from a cheeky penguin" he recalls, "but soon they got used to the new smell and the strange sheep-like dog". At the end of the month, by early January of this year, 70 pairs of happy feet were counted returning to the island – a significant increase in numbers.
Following the success of this trial, the council and the DSE are now embarking on a year-long trial at Middle Island, using two Maremma puppies recently acquired for this purpose and which Swampy plans to introduce as permanent guardians of the island. DSE manager, Craig Whiteford, is delighted with the results, saying that the concept could be adapted to protect other penguin colonies along the coast in nearby areas: "This is innovation borne of desperation. If we hadn't done anything they wouldn't have lasted this season."
Meanwhile, Missy and Oddball regularly visit the island, as the scent of the dogs serves as a deterrent to foxes from crossing to the island opposite.
Swampy is hardly surprised at the successful outcome. "It's not an altruistic view of penguins or chooks but an ingrained sense of territory that makes these dogs work", he says. "And it is far stronger in these dogs than any other domesticated breed. Just like Oddball is really protective of the chooks at home, to her the penguins were just chooks in dinner suits!."

Captions for photo with Allan: Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh has become a local hero in South Australia in his bid to save a colony of fairy penguins

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