Maremma sheepdogs protect penguins from predators
Mass penguin killings by wild foxes seemed a frequent ordeal for a small city on the coast of Victoria - until a local farmer came up with a canine solution.
It seemed unlikely, but it worked.
Now the use of Maremma sheepdogs to guard the colony of penguins has become one of Warrnambool's most unusual features and a world first in conservation practice.
Warrnambool council manager and dog-handler Peter Abbott said the programme began in 2006 after plummeting penguin counts.
"It got to a point where the colony was about to be wiped out," he said.
"We went from about 800 penguins, down to just four."
The current pair of patrol pooches, sisters named Eudy and Tula, live on Middle Island to guard the Little penguins from predators such as foxes and wild dogs.
The small island is just a few hundred metres from the shore, wadeable for humans and, as the locals discovered, swimmable for foxes.
However, while animal-lovers can visit the dogs at the town's maritime village, fraternising with the public is a controlled exercise.
They need to remain working dogs to remain effective on the job, said Abbott.
"The girls stay on the island through our breeding season at summertime and they stay there overnight of course by themselves. And also make sure people don't go to the island as well."
Penguin numbers have increased to about 180 after the Maremma project was launched.
The success of using the Italian breed has spurred a multi-million dollar movie to be made and named in honour of the first dog guardian named Oddball.
A local premiere of the movie screened on Sunday night, and among the cast, crew and community was Oddball's owner chook farmer Alan 'Swampy' Marsh.
Dressed in overalls and a tartan shirt for the red carpet event, Marsh said, "Penguins are really chooks in dinner suits."
Marsh had initially used his dog to protect his free range chickens. When he heard about the Little penguins being massacred during breeding season he thought his dog could help.
The big fluffy canines, indigenous to central Italy, were initially bred to protect livestock from wolves and bears, making them diffident toward humans and good guardians of other animals.
Rosanna Price travelled to Warrnambool courtesy of Tourism Victoria.