Almost everyone knows the Oddball story – but once the film credits roll, the real-life show goes on.
The world-first project to use Maremma dogs as penguin guardians on Warrnambool’s Middle Island captured audiences by storm.
It was easy to fall in love with the Oddball fairytale, but real life rarely keeps to the script.
As Middle Island Project Working Group chair Anne Wallis is quick to point out, there is a living scientific project behind the movie hype.
“As it says right at the start of the movie, this is a fantasy based on a true story,” Dr Wallis said.
“We all know the Oddball story, now it’s about finding out the true story, everyone thinks they know because they’ve watched Oddball.”
In the true story, there are a few more challenges and a little more heartbreak, but a happy ending is still in sight.
Since Maremmas were brought to Middle Island in 2006, the penguin colony has grown from just a few birds to more than 200. But the population was dealt a major blow when a fox attack in early August killed 140. While the island’s penguins have come back from worse, it was disheartening for those involved and for the public who had become so dedicated to the penguin story.
Penguin monitoring co-ordinator and Maremma dog management co-ordinator Trish Corbett said many people did not understand why the canine guardians were not working on the island at the time.
Those involved in the project had “an inkling” that little penguins were arriving earlier than previous years, but that did not mean it was safe for people and dogs to make the crossing to Middle Island.
Dr Corbett points to the seemingly calm waters leading to the island and says that all is not as it seems. “The channel is reasonably deep, the current is coming from both directions.
“People forget. There has been several people drown out here. It is a really high risk area.
“A lot of people aren’t aware. They don’t recognise that it is so unsafe and that’s why, otherwise we would have them (the dogs) there all the time.”
Dr Wallis said there were many risk factors involved in crossing to the island.
“For us to get over there safely, there’s got to be a low tide, there’s got to be no swell, the channel needs to be narrow and shallow and really in a good position, because the channel moves a lot,” she said.
“Given that the penguins generally aren’t there across the winter and given that those risk factors are heightened in winter… then not only did we not see the need to have the dogs over there during that period of time, but also it was the most dangerous time to be moving dogs and people back and forth from the island.
“It’s not a case of take the dogs out there and leave them, they need to be fed, they need to be managed.”
Dr Wallis said trying to determine whether penguins would continue to arrive early would come down to more research.
“We have to find out more about the penguins, so that probably means we will try to monitor them for longer. The end of the breeding season is the end of March so the conditions are probably still not too bad up until June,” she said.
“Our plan for the coming end-of-season is that we will make crossings to the island for as long as we can from that March to June because that’s not so bad and then we it really is a balancing act about June,July, August.”
Dr Corbett said poor weather had hampered efforts to do a count of penguins so far this season.
“Even if we do we’re not really going to know until that December-January period, which is when we get our peak arrivals. That will really tell us what’s happening this season,” she said.
“From everything that we’ve heard it seems like they’ve got good food availability, they’re quite healthy, so there is potential that, for the penguins we have left, we’re going to have a good breeding season.”
The pair are hopeful a count can occur within the next week or so.
Since the fox attack, and even before, those involved with the project have been buoyed by the public support.
“People are interested in communicating what they know. It’s really been embraced, it’s ‘our’ project,” Dr Wallis said.
“It’s something that makes you really proud to live in Warrnambool,” Dr Corbett said. “We’ve got amazing community support.”
Veteran penguin guardians Eudy and Tula have been back on the island for about three weeks. The Maremmas are in their seventh season and are expected to see out this summer and perhaps another before retirement.
A new Maremma puppy is arriving at the end of October and another about six months later. Existing pups Avis and Amor will continue to be the public face of the project.
Dr Wallis said the three generations of dogs would all serve a purpose.
“These two are the old girls who are the guardians now and will help us train the brand new puppies who will be the next guardians and Avis and Amor will then become the ones that will work in with tours and people can pat,” she said.
“The new puppies we will keep well away from the public and well away from people, there will be a couple of people who handle the dogs and that will be all so that they are proper guardian dogs.”
The public appetite for the Middle Island story will be met with an extended tour season from December to Easter, but tours will stay on the mainland.
“They will get to meet the dogs, take photos with the dogs and there will be a bit of a briefing at the start giving information about the project and some of those behind-the-scenes details that people like to hear,” Dr Wallis said.
“It’s not just for visitors, we really do encourage locals to come along too and learn about the real story of Oddball.”
The story Based on a true story: Learning about the real Oddball tale first appeared on The Standard.