Tuesday, February 10, 2009

updated 2:46 p.m. ET, Tues., Feb. 10, 2009
SYDNEY - It was a heart-tugging scene borne by a chance encounter in the charred landscape of Australia's deadly wildfires: a koala sipping water from a bottle offered by a firefighter.

David Tree noticed the koala moving gingerly on scorched paws as his fire patrol passed. Clearly in pain, the animal stopped when it saw Tree.

"It was amazing, he turned around, sat on his bum and sort of looked at me with (a look) like, put me out of my misery," Tree told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I yelled out for a bottle of water. I unscrewed the bottle, tipped it up on his lips and he just took it naturally.

"He kept reaching for the bottle, almost like a baby."

The team called animal-welfare officers to pick up the koala on Sunday, the day after deadly firestorms swept southern Victoria state.

"I love nature, and I've handled koalas before. They're not the friendliest things, but I wanted to help him," Tree said.

Slow-moving marsupials
Often mistakenly called koala bears because they resemble a child's teddy bear, the marsupial is actually a rather grumpy creature with a loud growl. It rarely comes down from the trees and doesn't like walking.

Koalas are especially vulnerable to wildfires because they move slowly on the ground.

The wildfires cut through parks and forests and sent countless wombats and other native species fleeing. One resident reported seeing kangaroos bouncing down the road with flames at their backs.

The fires also razed farmland, killing or panicking sheep and cattle. Television footage showed cows running down the main street of a smoke-filled town.

A count of the animals killed has not been made.

Tree said he found the koala in a burned-out forest near Mirboo North, about 90 miles east of Melbourne, Victoria's capital.

Koalas normally drink almost no water because they get almost all their fluids from the leaves they eat.

After the scorched koala sipped from the water bottle and Tree's crew moved on, animal welfare officials came by.

Koala recovering, has suitor
The koala, which turned out to be a female, was in pain but recovering with antibiotics, Jenny Shaw of the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter told Melbourne's The Herald Sun newspaper.

"She is lovely — very docile — and she has already got an admirer. A male koala keeps putting his arms around her," Shaw was quoted as saying. "It will be a long road to recovery, but she should be able to be released back into the wild in about five months."