These Italian Sheepdogs Are Protecting Endangered Penguins on a Tiny Australian Island — and You Can See It For Yourself
Just a few miles off the southern coast of Western Australia lives a flock of Little Penguins the impossibly adorable penguin species are a mainstay on the island — but they are also in danger of disappearing. So locals have called in the dogs.
Middle Island used to be home to a thriving population of Little Penguins, until foxes moved in. Although they are not the penguins' natural predators, the foxes quickly became a fearsome force. In the late 1980s, there were about 20,000 little penguins on the island. By 2005, there were fewer than 10 penguins left.
The penguin population was so fragile that in 2006, Middle Island was closed to the public. (Humans trampling across the penguin burrows can lead to the destruction of their homes.) And, around the same time, one local chicken farmer came up with an inventive plan to protect the penguins.
The chicken farmer happened to have had some success enlisting Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdogs to guard his flock and thought the dogs might be able to do the same for the penguins. And so the penguin protection program was born.
A partnership between landcare groups and local government organizations brought the dogs to Middle Island and put them through an extensive training program. For the past 15 years, the dogs have been guarding the penguins during their breeding season (from the end of summer until about February).
When they're working, the dogs patrol the island five days per week. On their off days, they relax on a nearby farm. There has been no evidence of fox attacks while the dogs are on the island and the penguin population has steadily grown.
The dogs are the first in the world trained to protect penguins. And the adorable and unlikely pairing has created buzz and helped raise community support and awareness for penguin conservation. In 2015, the project even inspired a movie called "Oddball."
Every summer, it's possible to visit the island and take part in a tour where you can see the dogs in action. When it's not breeding season, the dogs perform outreach programs back on the Australian mainland. For more information on the island and the penguin project visit the site here.