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Sam, koala rescued from fire, dies of urogenital chlamydiosis

August 10, 2009 |  8:31 pm

Sam It is with heavy heart that we report the death of Sam, the koala who became a symbol of hope this year for Australians imperiled by wildfires thanks to an iconic photograph that showed her taking a drink of water from a volunteer firefighter. 

Sam was taken to the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter in Rawson, a town in southeastern Australia, to recover from second- and third-degree burns.  Her rescuers expected her to recover, and while at the shelter, she even befriended another injured koala named Bob.

But while Sam was recovering, her rescuers discovered that she was also suffering from another medical problem -- ovarian cysts related to a urogenital chlamydiosis infection. 

Sam underwent surgery Thursday to remove the cysts, but the surgery revealed that the disease had progressed to such an advanced stage that the cysts were inoperable and would have caused her great pain. Rather than prolong her suffering, a veterinary surgeon euthanized Sam; she never woke up from surgery.

Urogenital chlamydiosis affects more than half of Australia's koalas and is a leading killer of the species. "The loss of Sam makes it even more imperative that we establish a koala hospital to research diseases" affecting koalas in the state of Victoria, wildlife rescuer Colleen Wood wrote on the website set up to handle Sam's press and monetary donations to the Southern Ash shelter.

Responding to the beloved koala's death, David Tree, the firefighter who gave her that famous drink, told Australia's Herald Sun newspaper, "I'm sobbing like a baby and I am a grown man."  Tree called Sam "a battler, a survivor and a wild animal who showed trust to turn to a human at her greatest time of need." 

Word of Sam's death even drew comment from Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd.  "I think [the photograph of Sam] gave people of the world a great sense that this country, Australia, could come through those fires, as we have," he told the Herald Sun. "And Sam the koala was part of the symbolism of that. It's tragic that Sam the koala is no longer with us."

Like Wood, Deborah Tabart, the CEO of the Australian Koala Foundation, hopes that Sam's death will bring new opportunity for other, less famous koalas suffering from urogenital chlamydiosis.  "Sam's just the tip of the iceberg," Tabart said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Sam's doing her wild cousins a huge favor by this international interest. Our koalas are in serious trouble across the country."

Sam the koala and other Australian animals receive treatment for fire-related injuries

Rescuers struggle to help wildlife injured in Australia's wildfires

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Sam in a Feb. 11 photo.  Credit: Rebecca Michael / AFP/Getty Images

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