When Jan Griffith’s much-loved dog, Sophie Tucker, was washed overboard in stormy seas as the family were cruising on their yacht off Mackay on the east coast of Australia, she believed that her pet had drowned.
Despite a frantic search there was no sign of the animal and Mrs Griffiths and her husband, Dave, resigned themselves to never seeing their dog again. Their children bought their parents a new pet — a red cattle dog named Ruby — and life slowly got back to normal.
Unknown to her owners, Sophie Tucker, a black and tan cattle dog, was not a quitter. It seems that the determined pet swam five nautical miles through seas inhabited by sharks to an island, where she survived for more than four months by eating what was available.
The story of the canine Robinson Crusoe came to light after park rangers heard reports that a cattle dog had been sighted on St Bees Island, a nature reserve off northeast Queensland renowned for its koalas.
Faced with starvation, the dog reverted to her wild instincts and began hunting and eating feral goats that roam the largely uninhabited island. Reports from the rangers, who believed Sophie to be a wild dog, suggested that she had lost a lot of weight in her first few weeks as a castaway but soon began to look fit and healthy.
Months later Mrs Griffith heard the reports of a cattle dog loose on the island and contacted the rangers in the hope that Sophie had survived. “She had become wild and vicious,” Mrs Griffith said. “She wouldn’t let anyone go near her or touch her.”
Mrs Griffith said some locals believed the dog was regularly swimming back and forth several hundred metres between St Bees and Keswick Island to hunt.
She said that Sophie Tucker, named after an American music hall entertainer, had been on deck with the family as they sailed past the Whitsunday Islands in November when winds began to whip up the waves. Suddenly she had disappeared.
“We hit a rough patch and when we turned around the dog was gone,” Mrs Griffith said. “We were able to backtrack to look for her, but because it was a grey day we just couldn’t find her and we searched for well over an hour. We thought that once she had hit the water she would have been gone because the wake from the boat was so big.”
Sophie was returned last week when the Griffiths arranged to meet rangers who brought the dog to the mainland. Mrs Griffith said: “We called the dog and she started whimpering and banging the cage and they let her out and she just about flattened us. She wriggled around like a mad thing.”
Viki Lomax, of RSPCA Australia, in Queensland, said that Sophie was lucky not to have drowned or been eaten by a shark. “If this had been a Pomeranian, I don’t think it would have been a happy ending,” she said.
Caroline Bower, of the Veterinary Hospital Group, said that certain types of dogs could summon their wild instincts if their survival depended on it.
“Although all dogs share 95 per cent of their genes with the wolf, there are certain dogs with more predatory instincts,” she said. “A King Charles cavalier would be poles apart from a collie, a cattle dog or a sheep dog. Herding breeds still have a strong instinct to chase. The only reason they don’t catch and kill the animal they’re trained to look after is because they’re carefully trained. When driven by hunger you would expect them to revert.”
Sophie Tucker has readjusted quickly to the comforts of home, Mrs Griffiths said. “She surprised us all. She was a house dog and look what she’s done. She’s swum over five nautical miles, she’s managed to live off the land all on her own. We wish she could talk, we truly do.”
As for Ruby, the two canines are now the best of friends.