Middle Island, a picturesque outcrop located off the coast of southern Victoria in Australia, is home to a colony of the world’s smallest penguins. Originally known as fairy penguins, these adorable little birds are no taller than a foot and weigh only about 1kg. There used to be hundreds of them at one point, but their population dwindled as they were hunted by foxes. That is, until a chicken farmer came up with an ingenious solution to use dogs as bodyguards for the penguins.
The problem was first noticed in the year 2000, when the sea’s natural current led to increased sand-build up, encouraging a growth in the fox population. The island is uninhabited by humans, and separated from the mainland by a 30-meter stretch of water. So at low tide, it’s easy for the foxes to cross from the mainland and reach the island, and hunt the adorable penguins.
Soon, the fairy penguin population started dwindling to the point where they were in danger of being completely wiped out “We went from a point where we had about 800 penguins down to where we could only find four,” said Peter Abbott from the Penguin Preservation Project. “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 colony really was on its last legs and just one more fox attack would’ve finished it off.”
No one had an inkling of how the penguins could be saved, but a chicken farmer named ‘Swampy Marsh’ finally came up with a solution in 2006 – he suggested using dogs and generously agreed to send one of his own Maremma dogs to protect the birds. “In Australia, those dogs are generally used for chicken protection or goats or sheep,” Abbott explained.
So Oddball the dog was soon dispatched to the island, and the idea worked wonderfully. “We immediately saw a change in the pattern of the foxes,” Abbott 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.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since Oddball and his successors were introduced to the island, and not a single fairy penguin has been killed by foxes. Their population now stands at about 200 and they’re currently being guarded by Eudy and Tula, the sixth and seventh dogs to join the program. They spend five days a week on Middle Island during the breeding season, and their days off at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village nearby. But even when they aren’t around, their lingering smell keeps the foxes away.
“We train them that the island is theirs,” Abbott said. “90 percent of their work is through barking. But if they did get on a fox they’d kill it.”
The Middle Island Maremma Project’s success became the inspiration for the multi-million dollar hit movie Oddball released in September this year. It’s earned about AUD11 million (US$7.9 million) at the box office, and is now set to be released across the world. “It’s a great story,” said Abbott. “We’re trying to save a cute penguin with a couple of cute dogs but the movie has taken things to a different level.”
And thanks to the movie’s success, tourists are arriving in droves at Middle Island to take a ‘Meet the Maremma Tour’. “It’s been one of the best things that’s happened for a long time,” said John Watson, a local hotel owner. “It’s filled a lot of extra bed nights for us with tourists coming down to either meet the dogs or do a tour of the island.” Many of the locals actually featured in the film as well, and Eudy and Tula were used as stunt doubles. But Abbott was played by an American actor. “I tell people it’s because they couldn’t find an Australian actor as good looking as me,” he joked.
Photos: Middle Island Maremma Project/Facebook