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Maremma Assists With Dwindling Penguin Population

The penguin population on Warrnambool's Middle Island in Australia had gone from 2000 a few years ago to only 29. The penguins had fallen prey to the local foxes and wild dogs in the area. "The penguins are part of the Warrnambool community and everyone feels pretty strongly about them," said Ian Fitzgibbon, Warrnambool City Council Environment Officer.

Victorian chicken farmer, Allan "Swampy" Marsh loved the penguins too, and devised a plan to help. Marsh's four Maremma Sheepdogs had been guarding his chickens for more than a decade. He believed that they could do the same for the penguins. Once Marsh convinced the "Wildlife Wallies" that the Maremma Sheepdogs were the right choice, Marsh selected Oddball to handle the job.

The City Council closed Middle Island to the public during the trial for fear that the dog might attack people, as this breed is very territorial and wary of strangers. Oddball's first encounter with the penguins resulted in a peck on the nose, but they soon learned to co-habitat, with Oddball sleeping only a few feet from the penguin's burrows. Marsh was allowed to camp on the island to monitor the progress.

Oddball's stint as the guardian of the penguins was initially a success. By the end of the month, the number of penguins had tripled with 70 penguins and 20 chicks being counted.

"There is global interest in this little trial," according to Regional Biodiversity Manager Craig Whiteford. He feels that this "guardian concept" could be used to protect shearwater, gannet and other penguin colonies along the coast. The Council along with the Department of Sustainability and Environment are now considering extending the trial to a year and using two recently acquired Maremma puppies.