The Bird Dog of Australia, an original tale
A few years ago, three puppies were born on a farm on the south coast of Australia. These were no ordinary dogs, they were maremma sheepdogs, a breed that had been brought to Australia from Italy to guard farm animals from foxes and dingoes.
The puppies grew bigger and stronger every day, but the littlest one, Kai, was a worry. She wasn’t growing nearly as fast as her sisters and she spent most of her time watching birds whirl in the sky when she should have been paying attention to her lessons.
One day, the farmer came to the barn to find the puppies. The biggest and the bravest of three was standing at the very top of a tall stack of hay bales. The farmer laughed and whistled for her. She jumped down and followed him out to the field of cows.
She walked into the middle of the cows, her tail held high, and sat down, being careful not to look at them directly. Soon a troupe of curious, young cows sauntered over. They snuffled through her long white hair and licked the back of her head with their wet tongues, which she didn’t like very much, but she stayed perfectly still, just as she’d been taught. The farmer nodded in satisfaction and left her to watch for danger.
The next day, the farmer came back to the barn. He looked at Kai and he looked at her sister. The bigger, braver puppy had undone the strings around a bale of hay and had built herself a den of straw. Kai was sitting in the open doorway staring at a flock of parakeets chattering in a tree. Leaving Kai to her dreaming, the farmer put a lead around her sister and led her to his field of sheep. Kai’s sister did what she’d been taught and sat down calmly, ignoring the sheep. It took several days before the sheep came sniffing around the puppy. Every day the farmer came to visit until he could see that the sheep had accepted the dog and the dog was guarding them.
That left Kai. The farmer found her watching a magpie perched on the open barn door. He sighed “What am I going to do with you?” Kai just wagged her tail against the barn floor.
The farmer led Kai over to the field of cows where her mother and sister were lying. Kai took one look at the big smelly cows, put her tail between her legs and ran all the way back to the barn. The farmer followed after her. “What am I going to do with you?” Kai just wagged her tail against the floor.
The farmer led her out to the field of sheep where her sister was sitting. Kai took one look at the hairy, greasy sheep, crinkled up her nose and ran all the way back to the barn. The farmer followed after her. “What am I going to do with you?” Kai wagged her tail against the floor.
That night a fox got into the chicken pen and carried off the farmer’s finest hen. He was very upset, but it gave him an idea. The next day he led Kai to the pen behind the farmhouse where his chickens were kept. Kai was so excited to see the birds, that she stared at them. Of course, this was the wrong thing to do. As soon as the chickens saw a dog watching them, wagging her tail, they ran squawking to the furthest corner of the pen. The farmer sighed “what am I going to do with you?” Kai remembered what she was supposed to do. She turned her back on the chickens.
The farmer decided to give her a second chance and left her beside the chicken pen. All afternoon Kai lay very still, as she’d been taught, ignoring the birds. When the farmer came back that evening, he was happy to see that the chickens were walking right next to the big white dog without a care.
From that day on, the farmer didn’t lose a single chicken. When Kai smelled the musky smell of a fox sneaking up, she would jump to her feet shake out her fur to make herself look as big as her sisters and bark a deep, growly bark. The foxes ran away, with their tails between their legs.
Every year, an agricultural fair was held in that small Australian town. The farmer packed his dogs into the back of his pick-up truck and drove them down to the fair so that they could compete in contests.
Kai’s biggest sister won the cow guarding contest and received a smart ribbon. Kai’s second biggest sister won the sheep contest, but there wasn’t any contest for dogs that guarded chickens. Kai felt sad.
Near this Australian town, was a small island where little blue penguins came to nest. They’d been raising their chicks there for thousands of years. However, now that there were foxes in this part of Australia, the little blue penguins were in danger. The previous year, foxes had swum out to the island at low tide and killed 350 penguins! This year, only ten penguins had returned. When the farmer heard that the little blue penguins of Middle Island might get wiped out by foxes, he had an idea.
He looked at Kai. “My little bird dog,” he said. “How would you like to be in the grandest contest any dog has ever entered?” Kai looked up at him and wagged her tail against the ground.
The farmer got in the cab of his pickup truck and patted the seat next to him. “Jump on up,” he said to Kai. She jumped up and wagged her tail against the old cracked vinyl seat. They drove down to the shore, where the Middle Island Ranger was waiting with a small motorboat.
“You take good care of my Kai,” said the farmer to the Ranger. “She may be small for a maremma, but she’s the finest dog I’ve ever come across. I’m sure she’ll do you proud.”
Kai’s tummy felt a bit funny as the boat pulled away from shore and she watched the farmer grow smaller and smaller, but the Ranger smiled at her and she wagged her tail, thump, thump, against the bottom of the boat
The Ranger pulled the boat onto the island and Kai hopped off. A strange creature flopped onto the beach beside them and waddled off towards the rocky edge of the beach, where it disappeared into a burrow. With a splash another creature flopped onto the beach. Kai stretched out her head and sniffed its backside. The creature squawked and lunged at Kai’s nose with its beak. Kai remembered what she was supposed to do and backed away, turning away from the fishy smelling bird. The penguin waddled over to its burrow, its mate sticking out her head as he arrived.
As night fell Kai smelled the musky smell of foxes coming from the sea. She stood up and barked her growly bark. A couple of penguins poked their heads nervously out of their burrows. The smell drifted away and Kai sat back down.
All that night the foxes tried to steal on shore, but Kai chased them away. In the morning the penguins were nervous and restless but they were still alive and they still had their eggs. Every night the foxes swam towards the island, but the littlest maremma dog scared them all away. That year, all of the penguin chicks hatched and on Christmas Day, the last, littlest penguin swam out to sea. The next year when penguins arrived on the island there were 50 of them and there was a big white dog there to greet them, wagging her tail against the wet sand.
Telling Notes: Children can make the noise of Kai wagging her tail against various surfaces. Once they get used to what maremma dogs are supposed to do when they are guarding, you can ask them about this as you continue the story.
This story was inspired by the real maremma dogs of Middle Island, Warrnambool Victoria, Australia, who have won a conservation award for their protection of a colony of little blue penguins. A recent film, called Oddball, also celebrates these unlikely conservation heroes.
The Edinburgh zoo only has rockhoppers, gentoos and king penguins.