MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Farmers have long used dogs to protect sheep, chickens, goats - and now, on an island off the southern coast to Australia, one farmer is using dogs to protect endangered penguins.
NPR's John Nielsen has more on these penguin dogs.
JOHN NIELSEN: Every year, the Fairy Penguins come to Middle Island to mate and lay their eggs. Allan Marsh, a farmer from the nearby town of Warrnambool, says these short, blue, flightless birds have been making the trip since, well, who knows when?
Mr. ALLAN MARSH (Farmer, Warrnambool): Little Fairy Penguins have limped along this coast since penguins were invented, I suppose, by the great Juju.
NIELSEN: Marsh raises free-range chickens on a farm next to a highway. When I reached him just before dawn, he was out doing his chores. He says 20 years ago, the penguins on Middle Island made a deafening noise when they were breeding. Then, some foxes found the land bridge that connects this island to the mainland at low tide. Marsh says the foxes, which like to eat his chickens, appeared to love the taste of Fairy Penguin.
Mr. MARSH: These are real free range, and they got salty flavor, too. You know, it's like salt and vinegar chips to a fox, I reckon.
NIELSEN: The foxes started chowing down on penguins, eggs and chicks, almost wiping out the colony. Efforts to shoot and poison the foxes failed miserably. It wasn't long before just a few dozen breeding pairs were left. But then, a few years ago, Marsh - who is called Swampy by his friends - came up with a last-ditch solution: Take the dogs that guard his chickens - or his chooks -and use them to guard the Fairy Penguins. It first, the experts all said it was a really stupid idea.
Mr. MARSH: So many people said, ah, the dog will eat the penguins, you know. And I was 100 percent confident that that wouldn't happen, because I wouldn't put a dog in amongst my 10,000 free-range chooks if was going to live on free-range chooks.
NIELSEN: Then, last November, a local official who'd run out of options called Swampy Marsh and told him to bring out the dogs. Not long afterwards, Marsh took a male Maremma guard dog named Oddball out to Middle Island. Within a week, Marsh says, the foxes were nowhere to be seen.
Mr. MARSH: The fox would not come within about a mile and a half of where the dog was. The dog would bark at foxes that it saw that mile and a half away. Also, the dog would mark its territory with both feces and urine to announce, hey, I'm here, and this is my place.
NIELSEN: Marsh fed Oddball every day, but after three weeks on the island, the dog got lonely and swam home at high tide. Oddball's sister Molly was sent out to replace him, followed by his brother, Ben. While these dogs were on the job, no fox tracks were discovered. But when they left, the tracks reappeared. In the wake of this success, Marsh says some conservationists are taking another look at the idea of using dogs to protect other vulnerable species.
Mr. MARSH: They haven't embraced it with open arms, but they've certainly had their minds rattled and their eyes opened to the fact that there's another way of doing things.
NIELSEN: But the Fairy Penguins haven't seemed so grateful. Marsh says his dog Molly found that out when she got too close to the sharp-hooked beak of one of the birds she was protecting.
Mr. MARSH: This penguin did a quick u-turn and latched onto her nose, and she said, yeah. Strappy little buggers, aren't they?
NIELSEN: Marsh says his dogs will go back on penguin protection duty in a few months when the birds return to Middle Island to breed.
John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.