SYDNEY — The first battered bodies were found on a small Australian beach, the white sand around them stained crimson with their blood. A few days later, the killer struck again – this time on the nearby cliffs overlooking Sydney Harbor. The cluster of victims were covered in bite marks, their tiny tummies slashed open.
Through blood-spatter evidence and DNA testing, a profile of the killer began to emerge: Stealthy. Fast. Furry.
What is killing the little penguins in Sydney's beachside suburb of Manly? A fox? A dog? Both?
The investigation so far has yielded some clues. Officials can almost certainly rule out humans; the bite marks and blood patterns point to foxes, which often hold prey in their mouths and prance around shaking it, said Sally Barnes, head of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.
To Manly's "Penguin Wardens," a 30-member group of volunteer penguin protectors who spend hours each night guarding the birds, the culprit behind what they've dubbed the "Massacre at Manly Point" is less important than making sure it doesn't happen again.
"It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," said grief-stricken chief penguin warden Angelika Treichler, a 67-year-old retired teacher who has been watching over the fluffy blue-and-white waddlers nearly every night for the past five years.
The investigation into the nine penguin deaths to date – and efforts to protect those still alive – has spread beyond the wardens to the New South Wales government. The parks service has sent DNA samples to a lab, but won't have results for at least a week.
As they hunt for the killer, parks service officials have set fox bait and traps, and warned residents to keep dogs locked up or on a leash.
"Really, it doesn't matter whether it's a fox or dog – we're not going to wait for the results," Barnes said. "We're just throwing everything we can at keeping the penguins safe."
This week, the parks service sent two "snipers" – trained sharpshooters from the state pest authority, armed with night vision goggles and .22-caliber rifles – to the cliffs to kill any foxes caught in their crosshairs.
Extreme? Not so much. This is, after all, a country that's considering building fences across chunks of Tasmania to help prevent endangered Tasmanian Devils with a contagious cancer from infecting the healthy population.
"Australians are generally animal lovers, and I think they're also very connected to native animals," Barnes said. "So they will do whatever's reasonable to protect particularly endangered ones."
And, as Manly Mayor Jean Hay noted: "Everybody's saying, 'Do whatever it takes to protect them.'"
To an outsider, however ...
"Snipers?" U.S. tourist Christy McLeod, from Bend, Ore., asked from her seat on Manly wharf, eyes darting to the sand where her son was playing. "Really?"
Not anywhere nearby, she was assured. And their targets are foxes, not people.
"That's creepy," she muttered. "They're PENGUINS."
Little penguins, actually. Also known as fairy penguins, they are the world's smallest penguin species, standing around a foot tall.
They are often seen in southern Australia and New Zealand, but are rare in New South Wales; the 120 that live in Manly are the only breeding colony left on the state's mainland, and they are considered endangered by the state government.
Five years ago, Treichler noticed a small group of penguins shuffling each night from the ocean to their nests under the wooden ramp leading to the adjacent beach. She was smitten – and petrified. Who would ensure their safety?
Thus began her nightly vigils next to the birds' nests. She puts off what most would consider important tasks – such as hip replacement surgery – until the three months of the year that the penguins head out to sea.
Others soon joined her, and today, 30 volunteer Penguin Wardens rotate night shifts. Aside from dogs and foxes, 22-year-old warden Elissa Barr cited other dangers: Flash photography disorients the birds. Trash can get stuck around their necks. And drunks sometimes step – and, Barr noted dryly – urinate on them.
But the volunteers can't be everywhere, as evidenced by the recent killings.
Treichler believes the birds were taken during their nightly march home. "In autopsies that were done, they had fresh fish in their tummies," she said from her perch on the Manly pier, the chilly nighttime breeze ruffling her white hair.
So the wardens stepped up their watches. On this night, seven stand guard over a nest of four. The birds are laying low, including the normally flamboyant Mr. Stickybeak. Treichler believes the silence from the private beach where the latest slaughter happened has alerted the Stickybeaks and their neighbors – Mr. and Mrs. Silverwing – to the danger.
"They are usually singing their love songs," she said. "But it's eerily quiet at the moment."
Suddenly, a man and his 6-year-old son approached with unsettling news: Just yesterday, they saw a dead penguin at a beach south of Sydney.
"Did he have his tummy opened?" Treichler asked.
"Yeah," the man replied. "And he was missing his head."
Treichler's face fell. A pained murmur rustled through the group.
"That's a fox," Treichler said.
She and another volunteer scurried off to check on the nests at the private beach. As she slipped away into the night, she conceded with a smile: "It's a bit illegal."
But the chief penguin warden had a job to do. Somewhere in the darkness, the killer still lurked.