Subject: Fairy Penguins coming to a cinema screen near you
From: Alex Kemp
Date: Monday, 14 December 2015 19:45:26 +0000
To: Oliver Kemp, Micaela Kemp, Liisa Kemp, Davin Kemp

Get ready to start saying “Ah!”...

Fairy Penguin meets Maremma dog in the Sarah Snook Family Movie Oddball

Since it was shot in Australia, the obvious comparison is with that fabulous movie Babe but, with a following wind, I reckon that Oddball could easily become a hit (see the Trailer: YouTube). What gives extra piquancy is that not only was it based on an actual event (with a Maremma dog called Oddball, of course) but that the whole thing continues.

The town of Warrnambool is on the south-eastern-most tip of Victoria, Australia, near the coast. Just 20 or 30m off the edge of the mainland is Middle Island. The island is too small for humans to live there, but has proven irresistible for Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula minor) (a.k.a Little Penguins, Blue Penguins, Kororā), the world's smallest penguin.

Fairy Penguins breed along the whole of the southern coastline of Australia, including Middle Island

The Penguin Preservation Project found themselves with a big problem on Middle Island in 2005. A university study in 2000 had found 502 penguins coming ashore each night & later there were 800 penguins on the island. By 2005 that had dropped to just 4 penguins. So, what was the problem?

In the Antipodes, this recent-ish problem of native-species predation usually has one of 3 or more causes:

  1. Humans
  2. Rats
  3. Foxes

Humans promptly got banned from the island (2006), and as (presumably) there were no rats, the project reckoned that foxes were the main culprit. At the very time that Deakin University was studying the penguins, the tide was building up sand in the channel such that at low tide foxes could walk across to the island. In 2005, each morning they would find fox-prints in the sand...

Here is a chilling statement from Peter Abbott of the Project:-

Foxes are thrill killers. They'll kill anything they can find. In our biggest bird kill, we found 360 birds killed over about two nights.

What on earth could the Project do about the foxes?

It was at this moment that the Penguin Preservation Project got the unlikeliest of offers from someone with the unlikeliest of names:- Swampy Marsh is a local chicken farmer, and he suggested that they use a Maremma dog to protect the penguins.

Maremma sheepdogs have been used in Italy for centuries to protect sheep from wolves, and are typically used in Australia to protect chickens & goats (or sheep) from the local wildlife. Swampy had been using such dogs to successfully protect his own chickens.

A Maremma dog named Oddball was trained to live on the island and, from the first day that he was placed on Middle Earth (sorry) Island (2005), not a single fox has been seen nor caused any predation on the penguins.

The penguin breeding season is from October to March, and that is when the dogs operate. There are currently two (Eudy and Tula) (Eudyptula - geddit?) and they are the 6th & 7th in line to Oddball.

With cute penguins, cute dogs, improbable chicken farmer & story + cute daughter this was a natural for a film. The crew & production descended on Warrnambool in 2014 & the subsequent film has taken 11m Australian dollars ($8m USD; £5.3m GBP). After an additional Italian documentary + ABC TV program, the folks of Warrnambool are now blasé about the whole business (but very grateful for the income from tourism).

The film Oddball is now due for a Worldwide release so remember - you read about it here first.

Alex Kemp