Sam, the famous Australian koala rescued by a firefighter after the deadly Victoria wildfires, has garnered a huge Facebook following and even earned a rare apology from the gossip Web site TMZ.
In a post about Country Fire Authority volunteer David Tree giving his water bottle to the koala he found stumbling through burned out bushland in the Victoria fires, TMZ.com wrote:
"After battling some of the worst wildfires ever to hit Australia, a firefighter shared his bottled water with a pampered koala on Monday. Afterwards the new friends went to Pilates and dined on sushi."
Many readers slammed the post entitled, "Koala to Firefighter: I Won't Tap That!," saying it was an unnecessary and insensitive shot at Victoria’s firefighters and the victims of the fire.
"OK, TMZ. Normally, I say mock the hell out of the celebrities and things you post,” reader KAK wrote. “But, seriously?? A firefighter sharing his water with a koala in Australia? Gosh, I can totally see the humor in that ... saving a wild animal, giving it water, and working to save the lives and homes of thousands. On this one, you LOSE, tmz."
Reader Cat had the same message for the Web site. "Sorry TMZ there is no humor to find in over 200 people being killed in these fires," she wrote.
Bobby wrote: "Wow classy any 9/11 jokes about towers you want to throw in? How about spousal abuse jokes — seems like the perfect time. Sometimes I have to question your hiring practices."Stef said: "Why would you make a caption like that about a tragic event?! I love reading your sight (sic) but this is really wrong. I've lost respect for you."
TMZ later apologized, saying, "We officially apologize for poking fun at Sam, the koala rescued from the fires in the Australian wilderness. Sam was photographed drinking bottled water and we made a joke....and it was out of line."
But some aren't placated by the apology, and a Facebook group is demanding TMZ make a donation to the Red Cross to prove it is really sorry.
Tree was close to tears when he was reunited with his new furry friend this week at the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter in Rawson, where Sam is recovering from third degree burns to her paws, the Herald Sun reports.
"Who knows if she recognized me or not but I would like to think so," Tree said. "I got a bit choked up because it has been such an emotional week. It was just good to see her doing well."
Tree said he was surprised by the reaction to the photograph, which was snapped by Mark Pardew — a fellow CFA volunteer — on a cell phone. Tree said he was in the middle of backburning at Mirboo North when he saw the stricken koala.
"I could see she had sore feet and was in trouble, so I pulled over the fire truck. She just plonked herself down, as if to say 'I'm beat,'" he said. "I offered her a drink and she drank three bottles. The most amazing part was when she grabbed my hand. I will never forget that."
Sam is healing well thanks to the efforts of caretakers at the rescue shelter — and she even has a new boyfriend, Bob.
Sam won the affection of Bob, another koala whose paws were scorched in the weekend's inferno, caretaker Lynn Raymond said Thursday.
"Bob is her protector — as soon as she is moved, he's on the move, too. It really looks like he's making sure she's OK," Raymond said from the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter in Rawson, 100 miles east of Melbourne in Victoria state, where the deadly fires continue to burn. "They're good company for each other."
Neither koala is likely to be healthy enough for release for at least four months, and are being comforted by caretakers who salve their scorched paws every few hours.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.