Hero penguin protector dog retires after almost a decade of service
Along with her sister Eudy, 11-year-old Tula has been guarding breeding penguins on Middle Island, near Warrnambool, since she was just two years old.
Now with new maremma pup Mezzo trained to be a penguin protector, Tula can look forward to a well-deserved retirement.
"She's got a bit of arthritis so she finds it really difficult to get up all those flights of stairs on to the top of Middle Island," said Middle Island Project coordinator Patricia Corbett.
Despite being slower than she once was, Tula will not be completely stepping away from her role.
"Maremmas don't like to not have a job, so she's going to be continuing on her role in a different way," Ms Corbett said.
"She will still be protecting chickens at a farm that they rest at and she'll also be helping us train our younger guardian dogs."
Tula's sister Eudy will stay on for another season.
Bringing penguins back from the brink
The Middle Island Maremma Project began in 2006 after fox predation saw a sharp decline in the island's little penguin population.
At the time, fewer than 10 penguins remained.
Maremmas — large white dogs originally bred to protect flocks of sheep — were placed on the island to protect the penguins during the breeding season.
The dogs bond with the flightless birds and guard against predators, such as foxes, which plague Warrnambool's foreshore and can cross to nearby Middle Island on the sand during low tide.
The project, managed by Warrnambool City Council, famously inspired the 2015 film Oddball.
Penguin numbers had been increasing until in August 2017 when 140 little penguins, almost the entire colony, were wiped out by foxes while the dogs were away from the island due to bad weather.
Despite one especially cunning fox causing trouble on the island this year, the penguin population has been recovering.
Not always smooth sailing
Maremmas work in pairs on the island so the dogs are not lonely, but working intensely together has its challenges.
Middle Island project officer, John Sutherland, has worked with Tula and Eudy since the day they arrived in Warrnambool.
"They're sisters from the same litter," he said.
"We learned very quickly we'll never do that again.
"They're the best of mates, they get on great with each other, but every now and again they have that blue — just like sisters."
Despite some sibling rivalry, Tula guarded her penguin colony ferociously and, as the island's lead guardian, she was the dog who would bark first.
Her handlers know her as a loyal girl and the smallest maremma in the group.
"Tula's a very sweet dog. You can see her looking lovingly into your eyes," Ms Corbett said.
After years on the program, Tula will celebrate her retirement with a sentimental farewell — surrounded by those who worked with her.
"We're going to have a special cake for her. We'll send her off in style," Ms Corbett said.
"I'm not 100 per cent sure which cake I'm going to make just yet.
"It will probably be some form of meatloaf with either a peanut butter frosting or a mashed potato frosting."