Late last month, a male stork named Klepetan arrived back in the eastern Croatian town of Brodski Varos to reunite with his mate of 16 years, a female named Malena. But unlike the traditional bird courtship that happens each and every spring for hundreds of species of monogamous birds worldwide, this event sparked a nationwide celebration.
You see, Malena and Klepetan are no ordinary white storks.
Malena lives in Brodski Varos year-round with her caretaker, a now 71-year-old widower named Stjepan Vokic, who rescued her 25 years ago after she was shot by a hunter.
Vokic reportedly found the injured bird by a pond near his village and took her in, feeding her fish until she regained her strength. Realizing that the creature would never be able to hunt for herself much less complete an annual migration to South Africa, Vokic became her full-time provider and built Malena a nest on the roof of his house so she could pass her days in the sunshine. When the weather turned cold, the devoted bird-father brought Malena inside the garage to spend the winters in a recreated “African environment” courtesy of a heater and an aquarium.
After nine years of cohabitation, a male stork spotted Malena on her roof perch and the two formed a permanent bond. Each year since, the male, named Klepetan, migrates 13,000 or so kilometers (8,000 miles) to and from southern Africa to meet Malena on Vokic’s roof and raise a flock of chicks. Per various sources, the couple has reared 54 or more white storks over the years – with help from grandpa, of course.
This ongoing ornithological love story has become so beloved by the Croatian public in recent years that newspapers and TV outlets excitedly announce Klepetan’s return and an award-winning live stream documents the moment that the birds see each other anew following months of separation. The attention has tipped the trio into international fame and galvanized support for a white stork hunting ban in Lebanon, where millions of the birds are killed each year as they pass through on their way to Europe.
And now, the City Theatre Žar Ptica in Zagreb is further immortalizing the unorthodox family with a live-action play titled “Malena and Klepetan”, premiering tonight.
According to Croatia Week, the family-friendly production carries a message about “love, loyalty, and the necessity of coexistence between man and animal.”
The highly anticipated production comes weeks after Klepetan’s on-time and drama-free return, unlike last year when his 3-week delay sent Croatia into a tailspin of fears that he had perished on his journey. Vokic has said that Klepetan may slow down as he gets older, yet hopes that he and Malena, whose species is estimated to live up to 39 years, have many more mating seasons to come.
He told a BBC TV crew last year that after Klepetan departs on his journey back to South Africa each fall, Malena “mourns” for 10 days, but the sadness is quickly remedied: “Then I take her in the car to the meadows for fishing, to take her mind off it.”