Caught by the River

How an Injured Stork Changed A Nation

29th March 2023

In an extract from her forthcoming book ‘Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us’, Keggie Carew tells of a beautiful kinship between retired janitor and injured stork. 

One life-changing day in 1993, outside the small village of Brodski Varos in Croatia, a retired janitor, Stjepan Vokic, found a female stork with a wounded wing. She had been shot by a hunter and survived but was unable to fly. Stjepan took her home and named her Malena. He caught fish to feed her. He built a summer nest around his chimney for her, and a winter nest in his garage. Stjepan and Malena went for walks and drives together, and down to the river on fishing trips. Stjepan’s days began to revolve around Malena.They became attached. ‘The stork is my whole life,’ Stjepan said. But he worried for her stork loneliness. For 10 years they lived together, Malena sitting in her nest on Stjepan’s roof each summer, migrating into his garage each winter. Then in 2003, out of the spring sky, a male stork flying over Brodski Varos came down and landed beside Malena’s nest. Stjepan watched Malena and her visitor bend their necks back in courtship to each other. Stjepan named the male stork Klepetan. 

Soon Malena was sitting on a clutch of eggs with Klepetan flying off and returning with food. Malena and Klepetan reared three chicks. At the end of the summer Klepetan flew 13,000 kilometres back to South Africa. The following spring Klepetan returned, and they raised another family. 

Every year Klepetan migrated to South Africa for winter, and every spring Stjepan and Malena waited for him to return. 

When Klepetan left, Stjepan said Malena mourned for 10 days. After a few years of the couple’s growing fame, the whole of Croatia began to wait for Klepetan’s return, watching a livestream video of Malena’s nest. In 2018 Klepetan was three weeks late. When he arrived, millions of followers rejoiced. Klepetan had to negotiate a route on which 2 million birds are killed every year by hunters’ guns. The thought that Klepetan might not return scared Stjepan, he feared he would hardly be able to take the emotional strain. 

Despite rumours of his death, Klepetan returned to Malena in April 2020. Malena died at a grand unknown age in 2021. Storks can live for 35 years.The oldest recorded wild stork was 39 years old. In her long life she and Klepetan raised 66 chicks between them. In their  different ways the three of them, Stjepan, Malena and Klepetan, have raised empathy and a nationwide awareness for the protection and possible plight of migratory birds. 


‘Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us’ — which tells the 40,000-year story of the foundational relationship between animals and humans — is published next week by Canongate. Pre-order your copy here (£19.00).