In 2005, the penguin colony, which remains on the island over breeding season, had been reduced by fox attacks to fewer than 10 identified birds, down from a peak of an estimated 800 penguins in 1999. A urgent conservation solution was clearly required.
Allan Marsh, a local chicken farmer, had an idea. He used maremmas to protect his free-range chickens from fox attacks, so volunteered his own chicken protector, a dog named Oddball, as the first trial dog to protect the penguins. Penguins, after all, were really just "chooks in dinner suits" to the foxes, he noted, referring to the Australian slang word for chickens.
The project, which launched in 2006, was a raging success.
"Previous methods involved poison baits, traps and shooting, but it only takes one fox to encroach the island to result in multiple penguin kills," said Peter Abbott, a maremma dog trainer and manager of tourism services in the Warrnambool City Council.
Since the introduction of the unique conservation program, not a single penguin has been lost to foxes, according to Abbott.
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The project even inspired 'Oddball', an Australian movie that premiered this week about the first canine penguin guardian.
Now the Middle Island Maremma Project needs new penguin-guards. The project hopes to raise about A$25,000 on the Pozible crowdfunding platform, which will be used to buy and train two maremma puppies, as the current eight-year old patrol dogs Eudy and Tula prepare for retirement.
"We like the crowdsourcing option as it gives us the opportunity for a wide audience to get involved, as well as showcase the project in an interesting and positive manner," said Abbott.
"[The puppies will] learn the smells and shapes of the penguin along with learning they are a normal part of island life…the dogs instinctively learn to protect the island from anything unusual such as foxes."