News State Victoria News Cute-as-a-button — unless you’re a fox aiming for a penguin dinner

Cute-as-a-button — unless you’re a fox aiming for a penguin dinner

Mezzo the Maremma will be trained for two years before taking over as the penguins' protector. Photo: Warnambool Council
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This is Mezzo, an Italian sheepdog puppy. Cute, right?

But don’t be deceived by his fluffy face – this adorable Maremma will soon weigh about 40 kilograms and become the fierce, fox-fighting guardian of a now-famous island colony of little penguins.

If he passes his two-year training program Mezzo may be the next real-life Oddball, star of the family-friendly 2015 movie.

Mezzo and companion dog Isola’s training regime will be challenging, not so much for the dogs but for the trainers.

Their Italian names loosely translate to Middle and Island, which just coincidentally happens to be the name of the rugged island off the coast of Warrnambool in south-west Victoria where they will spend most of their adult lives protecting penguins from foxes.

Managed by Warrnambool City Council, the Middle Island project began in 2006 and has successfully bolstered penguin numbers, gained international media attention and famously featured in Oddball.

At the beginning, there were just 10 penguins alive on Middle Island because of sustained fox attack.

Twelve years later under the protection of two loyal Maremmas — Eudy and Tula — the colony is thriving with estimates of between 70 and 100 nesting penguins.

Little penguins on Middle Island owe their lives to the canine protection program made famous in the hit flick Oddball.

Eudy and Tula are being retired to make way for Mezzo and Isola and the challenges of training the newcomers are ongoing.

Maremmas are calm, good-natured, wilful or independent but above all they are fiercely loyal to their flock and wary of strangers.

If a Maremma has not been well socialised with other people or dogs and one strays into their territory, they could be in grave danger.
This is where the challenge of training the dogs really lies, not just in their ability to protect penguins.

“Maremmas have an instinctive ability to protect whatever is in their territory,” Trish Corbett, coordinator of the Middle Island project explained.

“Anything that is invading the territory, is a threat. The way they protect them {the penguins} is via their scent, which is a big deterrent.

“If that’s not enough, they have a really deep bark. That is generally enough to keep predators away. But if not, I have no doubt they would chase the foxes away,” she said.

Foxes have little trouble reaching the penguin colony on Middle Island at low tide. Photo: ABC

Ms Corbett said the biggest problem was getting that “fine line between how much to socialise them with people”.

In 2015, previous new recruits Avis and Amor were found to have been over-socialised with people and had not spent enough time on the island and so were not doing their job properly.

To avoid a repeat, Mezzo and Isola are on a strict training regime.

“Mezzo is being taken to the island every second day while the crossing is safe,” Ms Corbett said. “He is being intensively trained to be calm around birds and other small animals.

“He is taken over [to the island} at night weekly to get used to the shearwaters flying around and landing on the island and boardwalk and penguins arriving.”

When he isn’t on the island, Mezzo is having daily socialisation with chickens on a farm.

Middle Island is small and close to Warrnambool’s mainland, so close that the narrow strip of sometimes shallow ocean between the mainland and the island can be waded through by humans — and foxes.

The penguins access the island from its southern side by taking a death-defying leap out of the deep, unfettered waves of the Southern Ocean onto a rocky platform.

In August last year, the project team was devastated when it suffered it first fox attack in 10 years.

“We counted 140 dead penguins, which was a huge loss,” said Ms Corbett.

“The problem with foxes is that one individual can kill hundreds of birds in just one night — they will kill for fun.”

“One of the [retiring] dogs is scared of thunder and lightning — there’s a risk she will try and get off the island and we lose her in the current,” Ms Corbett said.

At the time, wild winter seas had eroded a deep channel between the island and the mainland, leaving a treacherous ocean pass.

A thunderstorm was approaching so the dogs were taken off and with the penguins unprotected, it is assumed a fox made it across to the island for the killing spree.