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Australia Wildfire Rebuilding Finds A Mascot

ROHAN SULLIVAN   02/10/09 09:26 PM ET   AP

Koala

SYDNEY — It was a chance encounter in the charred landscape of Australia's deadly wildfires: A koala sips 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 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.

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.

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 (150 kilometers) 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.

Coleen Wood, manager of the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter where the koala was taken for treatment of second- and third-degree burns to its paws, said Wednesday that it was expected to make a full recovery.

Wood said there was no doubt the animal was wild, not domesticated, and that it would be released back into nature once a suitable habitat is found _ the foliage in Sam's forest was all but destroyed.

"The hardest part is going to be trying to find enough habitat to support these guys," Wood said.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said it was establishing shelters to care for thousands of pets and livestock affected by the fires.

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For donation information on the Net: http://www.redcross.org.au

http://www.wildlifevictoria.org

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Filed by Dave Burdick  |