Large white dogs dot the Italian countryside, where I first learned of the Maremma sheepdog breed. Though they look soft and cuddly, beware! The Maremma bonds with the land and all that belongs to it -- making the breed great working dogs but a poor choice as a family pet for any owner unprepared to deal with the large animal's instinctive response to intrusion.
For the natural ecology, the dog's work offers great benefits. By scaring the wolves off, the sheepdogs prevent the hunting or poisoning of the protected predators. The same instincts proved successful in Australia, where the free range chicken industry needed to ward off foxes. It was a small step from guarding chickens to saving "chooks in dinner suits," as the free-range farmer known as Swampy Marsh calls the fairy penguins which were threatened with local extinction after foxes found their way to the island where they breed and before Swampy's Maremma, Oddball, took over.
The inspiration to use the Maremma to save the penguins became a conservation success story.Now the story has come to the big screen. It was released in Australia at the end of last year, earning a relatively respectable 10 million dollars in its first six weeks in the theaters Down Under.
If you watched the original (one-and-only) Swampy Marsh in Mike's post on the penguin bodyguards, you may find that Shane Jacobson plays the eccentric chicken farmer to great credit.
The penguin stars in the film actually came from Sea World -- four selected because they were too young to breed and the two main penguins stars, Edith and Chip, chosen because they had failed to find mates for the breeding season that clashed with the film schedule. But all's well that ends well: Chip and Edith fell in love on the set, and now they are raising chicks of their own at the aquarium!
In the wake of the movie, we expect that even more conservation groups will join in the idea of using the Maremma to restore balance where natural predators and endangered species meet.
And for those inspired (101-Dalmatians-style) to think these cute, white dogs would make the perfect pet, remember that the Maremma are favored to protect sheep in wild areas because the dogs are large and strong enough to win in battle against a wolf!