Theophila, a nile crocodile, arrived in the communist country as a thank you from the Malian town of Kayes for building its waterworks some four decades ago. Just 22 centimetres long, the boss of the Colbitz water plant at the time, Gunter Hellmann, never imagined she would still be paddling around today.
“The African mentality then was that [East Germany] could do anything,” he explained. This included, it would seem, caring for an exotic reptile at a sewage plant.
Initially the tiny croc was kept in a little terrarium in the offices of the water and sewage treatment department of Magdeburg's town council. But she kept growing, and was soon too big for her home. The city's zoo refused to take her as she was already too big and expensive to care for, so the waterworks became her new home.
Hellmann, who had helped build the Kayes plant, became her ersatz-father. “We used to joke that she was our water tester,” he said. Indeed, some plants do have fish to monitor the quality of the drinking water but Theophila actually lives in a separate, reptile-appropriate, area as letting a 280 kilogramme crocodile swim free in the reservoir would be far too dangerous.
After East Germany crumbled in 1989, attempts were made to force Colbitz to get rid of Theophila. Keeping a crocodile was, officials said, far too risky. But Hellmann, now 75 and retired, claimed he successfully thwarted any efforts, and the croc was allowed to stay providing they could build her a bigger home.
In recent years, Theophila has proved something of a local mascot. She not only reflects the quality of care that goes into cleaning water but has put water treatment on the map, spokesman for Magdeburg's drinking water supplier TWM said.
Testament to her popularity are the visitors that travel to see her regularly and the more than 15,000 crocodile key rings that Colbitz has sold.
Current boss at the plant is 57-year-old Ingolf Kriegel, who has taken over from Hellmann in feeding Theophila once every two to three weeks and making sure she seems content. Nile crocodiles can grow up to six metres and live 100 years but “there's nothing stressful here so maybe she'll live longer,” said Kriegel, adding that crocodiles are solitary creatures so she shouldn't get lonely.
Hellmann likes to visit Theophila four to five times a year to see how she's doing. “I know she's in good hands,” he said.
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Although six years ago, both Hellmann and Kriegel had a surprise when they found unfertilized eggs in the croc's cage. Until then, Theophila was called Theophil, because they presumed she was a boy. Her name was swiftly changed to be gender appropriate.
Animal rights advocates have voiced concern about keeping a crocodile in captivity but agree that after 40 years, she can't be released to the wild. Instead, Theophila was a prime example of why animals should not be given as gifts, representatives from pressure group Peta said.