Hero penguin protector heads to the kennel for retirement
19 October 2019 at 12:00 pm
A beloved sheepdog responsible for saving a threatened penguin colony heads to retirement
The furry guardian of a threatened Victorian fairy penguin colony is hanging up her lead after nearly a decade of service.
On Wednesday, locals of the small south-west Victorian town of Warrnambool gathered to farewell Tula the maremma, a community hero that for nine years has guarded breeding penguins on Middle Island.
Tula was brought to the island in 2006 with her sister Eudy as part of the Middle Island Maremma Project after an increasing number of fox attacks left just four penguins in the colony
A world-first initiative, the project sees the maremma dogs act as a guard for the penguins by barking at the foxes to scare them away, and if need be, attacking and killing the predators.
Maremmas are originally bred to guard flocks of sheep, but their protective nature has worked well with the flightless birds.
Penguin numbers had been increasing up until 2017 when 140 penguins were wiped out by foxes while the dogs were away from the island due to bad weather.
Dr Patricia Corbett, the Maremma Project manager, told Pro Bono News that Tula would stay awake all night barking at foxes and running up as many as six flights of stairs at a time to protect the penguins.
In her old age, the physical demands that came with being lead guardian became too much.
“She’s always been the first one to get up from lying down, run really fast and bark at the foxes, so she’s got a bit of arthritis and is a bit stiff and sore now,” Corbett said.
But all of Tula’s hard work has paid off, with penguin numbers now recovering back to 2017 levels.
Corbett said Tula was held up as a great hero amongst Warrnambool locals because the penguin colony meant a lot to so many in the community.
“While we’ve got Phillip Island that has 30,000 penguins, we’ve lost a lot of those colonies along the coast to predators such as foxes and feral dogs and cats,” she said.
“They [the community] feel almost responsible for what happens to those penguins.”
She said over the last two years, Tula helped train her replacement, Mezzo, who will now step into the role as the island’s newest penguin protector.
Tula is headed for a farm, where she will be tasked with the easier job of protecting a flock of chickens, and occasionally lend a helping paw in the training of new guardian pups.
“Because maremmas have such a strong instinct to guard if you take them away from anything they know and anything that they usually protect, they don’t really know what to do with themselves,” Corbett said.
During her farewell, the beloved dog was gifted a special treat by all those who worked with her to thank her for her service.
“We all made sure we made a massive deal of her, and as a surprise she got a banana and peanut butter cake with peanut butter and yogurt frosting, layered with a variety of treats,” Corbett said.