A bond between two burned koalas rescued from Australia's deadliest wildfires has provided some heart-warming relief after days of devastation and the loss of more than 180 lives and possibly millions of animals.
The story of the koalas emerged after volunteer firefighter David Tree used a mobile phone to photograph and film the rescue of the bewildered female, since nicknamed Sam, that was found cowering in a burned-out forest at Mirboo North, 90 miles southeast of Melbourne.
Photos and a video of Tree, 44, approaching Sam while talking gently to her, and feeding her water from a plastic bottle as she put her burned claw in his cold, wet hand quickly hit video sharing Web site YouTube, making her an Internet sensation.
But it was after reaching a wildlife shelter that Sam met and befriended another koala, nicknamed Bob, who was saved by wildlife workers in Boolarra, about 110 miles from Melbourne.
Tree, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 26 years, said it was extremely rare to get so close to a koala so he asked his colleague Brayden Groen to film him.
"You can see how she stops and moves forward and looks at me. It was like a look saying, 'I can't run, I'm weak and sore, put me out of my misery,'" Tree told Reuters.
"I yelled out for some water and I sat down with her and tipped the water up. It was in my hand and she reached for the bottle then put her right claw into my left hand which was cold so it must have given her some pain relief and she just left it there. It was just amazing."
Sam was taken to the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter in Rawson. Her story was reminiscent of a koala named Lucky who survived the 2003 wildfires that destroyed about 500 homes and killed four people in the capital of Canberra. Lucky became a symbol of hope.
'Giving each other hugs'
Colleen Wood, who runs the shelter, said Sam was introduced to Bob and that both koalas were doing well while other animals like possums, kangaroos, and wallabies were also starting to emerge from the debris.
She said Sam had suffered second degree burns to her paws and would take seven to eight months to recover while Bob had three burned paws with third degree burns and should be well enough to return to the bush in about four months.
"They keep putting their arms around each other and giving each other hugs. They really have made friends and it is quite beautiful to see after all this. It's been horrific," said Wood.
"Sam is probably aged between two to four going by her teeth and Bob is about four so they have a muchness with each other."
Wood said about 20 koalas had been brought into her shelter in recent days, several of whom had bonded. Koalas are known to clump together, but none had garnered the same attention as the new Internet star Sam.
Koalas are especially vulnerable to wildfires because they move slowly on the ground.
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 and sharp claws. It rarely comes down from the trees and doesn't like walking.
The wildfires cut through parks and forests and sent countless wombats and other native species fleeing. One expert estimated millions of animals perished in the inferno.
"It's just horrific," said Neil Morgan, president of the Statewide Wildlife Rescue Emergency Service in Victoria, the state where the raging fires were still burning. "It's disaster all around for humans and animals as well."
Tree, a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority Victoria, has visited Sam since her rescue and was delighted to see she had bonded with Bob.
"They've really taken a shine to each other as they are both burned and share the same burned smell," he said. "My heart goes out to the people in these fires and this was so innocent so people have used this to distract them from all the sad stuff that has gone on. It gives people a bit of hope."
Wood said the koalas would be released back into nature once a suitable habitat is found.
"The hardest part is going to be trying to find enough habitat to support these guys," Wood said.