Thursday, July 9, 2015

Maremma dogs protecting penguins now stars of film and tourism


Dog handler Phil Root with Maremmas Tula and Eudy in front of Warrnambool’s Middle Island
Friendly beasts: Dog handler Phil Root with Maremmas Tula and Eudy in front of Warrnambool’s Middle Island where they protect the penguin colony. Pictures: Zoe Phillips
THE two Maremma dogs bound around the grassy enclosure, barking at thin air.
“This is what they do all day,” explains handler Phil Root. “They’ll bark at trains, boats, anything that’s a possible threat. It’s in their instinct to protect their space.”As enthusiastic as seven-year-old Maremmas Eudy and Tula appear, they have no idea about their impending stardom.

Tula and Eudy the Maremma dogs with their island in the background.
On September 17, the movie Oddball will hit cinemas, based on the true story of the original Maremma dog, Oddball, and how a chicken farmer introduced the breed — renowned by farmers as a guardian dog — to protect the penguin colony on Warrnambool’s Middle Island. Previously, the Warrnambool City Council had used baiting, shooting and fumigation on the mainland to try to stop foxes, but in 2005 there were just four penguins remaining on the island.

Since Oddball was introduced in 2006 — and subsequent Maremmas including current recruits Eudy (below right) and Tula (below left) — no penguins have been killed by foxes and the population has grown to 150, with an aim to build it to 500.

Tula the Maremma.
Eudy the Maremma.
“When we started the project, it was all about the environment, not tourism,” says council’s Peter Abbott, who works with Phil to take care of the Maremmas and runs Meet the Maremmas tours of Middle Island.

“But the dogs and the movie have branded Warrnambool. You can’t buy that kind of marketing.
“Now we’ve got to make sure when people come to Warrnambool they get an experience of the movie, of the dogs, but not in a way that is a challenge to the island, the penguins, or the dogs.”

Phil, and particularly Peter, worked closely with the producers of Oddball when they filmed in the town for three weeks in May 2013. They provided extras and even a council truck, but ensured no filming was ever done on sensitive Middle Island, which is closed to the public.

Maremma the movie

“They built a fake island at Docklands and we helped them find the sand, shrubbery and rocks and they interacted with penguins bought in by Sea World,” Peter says. At the same time as Oddball was being filmed, National Geographic was also creating a documentary on the making of the film and the Maremmas’ role on the island.

From about October to March each year the dogs are based in an enclosure to guard the nesting penguins. Each day Phil wades or swims out to the island to take care of the dogs, feeding and walking them.

During winter, Eudy and Tula are homed either at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village — where Phil works as gardener and Peter as tourism manager — or at a nearby farm.

Peter Abbott with Eudy and Phil Root with Tula. Picture: Zoe Phillips
For the love of dogs: Peter Abbott with Eudy (left) and Phil Root with Tula.
Peter says after trialling several Maremmas, council decided the best were pure bred, now sourcing them from a breeder in NSW or Shepparton. “The whole program is about using their natural instinct to protect,” he says.

Peter says they plan to retire Eudy and Tula in the next couple of years, training more Maremmas in the meantime. As for Oddball the original Maremma, he’s now contentedly in retirement. “He’s on a farm and an old dog,” Phil says.


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