Little Penguins

Penguins are awfully cute. They’re not for everybody mind you, since they do smell like fish and make quite a racket but I have always found them to be fascinating, being that they make their bird living without the use of wings - and those legs are nothing to brag about either.

The smallest of these are the Little Penguins hailing from Australia. Locally known as Fairy Penguins, which makes me want to cuddle one more than I already do, they were once common on mainland Australia but because of non-native predators more colonies have moved offshore to enjoy island life.

Whenever native species are in danger of extermination the usual suspects are imported species and the Fairy Penguin’s situation is no different. Foxes, feral dogs and cats make the top of the list for the destruction of these numerous colonies. Though the 13 inch, 3 pound birds do have some natural enemies, it is easy to see how ineffective self-defense could be when they cannot fly and I would imagine running from a cat or fox is fairly useless when your legs are that tiny. Because of these physical attributes, colony numbers can go down by the dozens literally overnight.

Changing tides and ocean levels have created sandbars that made some islands vulnerable to predation and has become epidemic in places. Once numbering 800 on Middle Island off Victoria, in 2005 those numbers were down to under 10.

That is not a typo.

But we have a happy ending because of a chicken farmer and his buddy, Ben. Ben is a Maremma Sheepdog, a livestock guarding breed from Italy. The farmer was having the same predation issues as the penguins but with his many chickens, and though he knew he had a solution, it took him years to convince government officials that Ben could protect penguins as well as he protected chickens. In desperation, they gave it a try.

We all know how it turns out, because we know dogs.

Since 2005, the numbers have increased to 150 Fairy Penguins on Middle Island. This program has been employed at other islands and colonies with the same wonderful results, results so good that Australia is now considering how best to use dogs to protect other indigenous animals from vanishing by predation from non-native newcomers. New Zealand is also employing this technique to keep vulnerable natives from succumbing to imported threats.

The irony is; feral dogs are the reason the penguin numbers dropped, and loved, well-trained dogs are the reason they survive. What a difference love can make.

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