The idea of entrusting dogs with the protection of an island colony of penguins isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.
Story By Gretel Sneath
The little penguin population of the Victorian town of Middle Island plummeted from several hundred seabirds to single digits during the 2004–05 breeding season. Foxes were to blame – they had been swimming across from the mainland for a feed. Furious locals declared that the annual massacre had to stop, but how to outwit a cunning fox? Ask a chicken farmer.
Local poultry expert Alan ‘Swampy’ Marsh had been having enormous success using maremma sheepdogs to protect his free-range chooks. Originally bred in Italy, maremmas have a highly territorial guardian instinct, and are widely used to protect agricultural stock from predators.
The idea ruffled a few feathers, for it was a world-first, but with only four penguins left in the local colony, Warrnambool City Council decided to try it.
A four-week trial began in 2006 using Swampy’s dog Oddball, and the island has been fox-free ever since. Two maremmas now live on the rocky outcrop five days a week during the summer penguin-breeding season. Their handler, Phil Root, brings food and water daily, while members of the public can also pay a visit during escorted walking tours at low tide.
Eudy and Tula are the current guardian dogs (their names are a nod to the scientific classification for little penguins, Eudyptula minor). When the dogs are not on island watch, they are the star attractions at Warrnambool’s Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, which agreed to take prime responsibility for their care in 2013. Eudy and Tula interact with visitors during their daily walks around the museum, in the original Lady Bay lighthouse precinct.
They’re a filmmaker’s dream, and in September the story of the penguin protectors made it onto the big screen. The movie Oddball was directly inspired by the Middle Island Maremma Project, with producer Steve Kearney recognising its big screen potential during a family holiday to Warrnambool.
The film’s director, Stuart McDonald, met with Swampy Marsh during filming and asked him what made him get involved with the project. His response was the feel-good answer that family movies thrive on: “They’re just little fellas. They needed a hand”.
This Story is from Issue #104
Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2016