A dog and a bird formed an unlikely friendship. Their separation has infuriated followers

“Peggy and Molly” were a match made for the internet.

Peggy is a stout and muscular Staffordshire bull terrier, and Molly is a magpie, an Australian bird best known for swooping on humans during breeding season, not for befriending dogs.

In the four years since their unlikely bond was posted online, the odd couple has attracted almost two million followers on Instagram and Facebook.

But in an emotional video posted online Tuesday, Peggy’s owners, Juliette Wells and Reece Mortensen, announced that the animals had been separated.

“It breaks our heart to make this announcement today,” said Wells. “We had to surrender Molly to the DES – Department of Science and Innovation – as we had a small group of people constantly complaining to them.”

Fans online were quick to demand justice.

“This is a classic example of bureaucracy over common sense and humanity,” one user wrote on Instagram. “Our tax-payer funded departments should be using their resources to help out the community and save mis-treated wildlife, not harm them!!” said the comment, which attracted more than 1,000 likes.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Science and Innovation (DESI) said in a statement the bird had been “illegally” taken from the wild and been kept with “no permit, licence or authority.”

“Animals in rehabilitation must not associate with domestic animals due to the potential for them to be subjected to stress and the risks of behavioural imprinting and transmission of diseases,” the statement added. “Animals from the wild, must stay wild.”

Prominent bird expert and behavioral ecologist Darryl Jones from Griffith University said magpies are highly intelligent and sociable birds. He told CNN there’s no question as to what should happen next: “That animal now thinks it belongs to that family… It should go back to the people.”

Wildlife officials say wild animals should not be domesticated. - From peggyandmolly/Instagram
Wildlife officials say wild animals should not be domesticated. - From peggyandmolly/Instagram

An abandoned baby bird

Wells found Molly in a local park, apparently abandoned as a chick, according to a long post on Facebook.

“We were very concerned because the park was an off-leash dog park in the afternoons and up to 30 dogs of all breeds run around crazily we knew this little bird would not stand a chance. So, we did what any animal lovers would do and made the decision to bring him home and care for him,” the post said.

“Over the next few months we nurtured this magpie, taught him how to feed, fly and put him outside as much as possible because our goal was to get him back out into the wild.”

But Molly didn’t leave, and bonded with their dog Peggy.

During the pandemic, Wells posted images of the animals together to social media with motivational slogans – “Days spent with you are my favourite days” and “You are my Happy Place.”

The animals attracted a huge online following.

T-shirts were printed, calendars sold, then a deal was signed with one of the country’s biggest publishers.

The resulting book, “Peggy and Molly,” was marketed as “heart-warming photos and simple life lessons about what it means to be a true friend and how we can all learn to be kind, humble and happy.”

But not everyone was happy about the development.

Wildlife officials worried that others would follow their lead of domesticating wild animals in the hope of profiting online.

It’s unclear if Wells and Mortensen made any money from the related merchandise. But in 2022 around $66,000 was raised for them through a GoFundMe campaign to help buy the property they’d been renting. CNN reached out to the couple for comment but did not receive a response.

Online campaign

Wells and Mortensen are now mobilizing an internet campaign to pressure authorities to give back the bird, a protected species in Australia.

An online petition to reunite the animals has attracted around 70,000 signatures.

“We are asking why a wild Magpie can’t decide for himself where he wants to live and who he wants to spend his time with,” the couple said in their online post.

In its statement, the DESI said there was no option to release the bird to the wild as it had become “highly habituated to human contact.”

It would be placed in a facility, the statement said, which could be a long stay – magpies are known to live up to 30 years.

Jones, from Griffith University, who has written a book about his own experience raising a magpie, said taking the chick home was “the worst possible thing that [the couple] could have done.”

He said feeding birds is not uncommon in Australia – “every second person you meet is feeding a magpie somewhere” – but there was a difference between allowing them to roam in your garden and taking them into your home.

“It’s not a good thing to take animals from the wild and turn them into pets. It’s not something to be recommended, and that’s why there are strong rules about that sort of thing,” Jones said.

But now that Molly has become a family pet, the best thing would be for the DESI to return it, he added.

“The authorities could say on reflection, with the welfare of the individual magpie in mind, we have decided that the best thing to do for that magpie is to return it to the family,” he said.

Bernard Ashcroft, CEO of Wildlife Rescue Australia, said the law prohibits people from taking wild animals as pets, for good reason.

“It’s not appropriate that people have a magpie simply because it appeals to them. If they don’t know what they’re doing they can cause a bit of harm,” he said.

“Different birds have different nutritional needs.”

The department released another statement on Thursday acknowledging that Molly’s surrender was an “emotive issue.”

“Our number one priority is the ongoing welfare of the magpie, and the bird is safe, undergoing rehabilitation and has full access to veterinary care,” the statement said.

The department said it was investigating options for Molly’s future living arrangements within the boundaries of the law.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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