Crocodiles on the loose always make an appetizing story, especially during the European summer when media are scratching around for news.
No doubt editors across Germany were delighted when police issued a statement on Sunday that children swimming in the Ruhr river near the industrial city of Bochum had spotted two of the lethal reptiles, and had been chased out of the water by one of them.
The eyewitnesses, three children and two teenagers who had been enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon by the river, called the police shortly after 5 p.m. saying they had seen a crocodile about 1.80 meters (almost six feet) long lying on an island in the river and another one in the water.
"They said one crocodile swam towards them and that they fled out of the water," Volker Schütte, spokesperson for the Bochum police, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Police rushed to the scene, declared the area out of bounds to swimmers and scoured the area in a boat, but saw nothing.
The river bank, a popular location for sunbathers, was re-opened to swimmers on Monday and local lifeguards are keeping an eye out for crocodiles.
The story was widely reported in the German press and broadcasters dispatched camera crews to scour the area.
Not Just a Children's Prank?
One could be forgiven for thinking that was the end of it. One could put it down to a children's prank, or a scare brought on by a log in the river, or the impact of the heat on young minds. But there might just be something to it.
According to Schütte, a journalist from the local newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said he had seen a crocodile some six weeks ago in a nearby lake, the Kemnader Stausee, one of six reservoirs along the Ruhr, and had taken a photo of it with his mobile phone. "Unfortunately, the picture wasn't very clear," said Schütte.
In addition, police aren't sure that Sunday's sighting was a hoax. The children seemed genuinely scared. "We can often tell when kids are just playing around and lying to us," said Schütte. "They usually break down under close questioning. But when we took them aside individually and asked them if they were having a laugh, they insisted they'd really seen it."
Thirdly, crocodiles would probably feel at home on the little island in the river. "It's completely overgrown, so one can't see in," said Schütte. "It would be an ideal site for them."
Exotic Pets on the Run
Fourthly, and perhaps most disturbingly, there has been a surge in ownership of exotic pets around the developed world, including Germany, in recent years, and some of these pets escape or are abandoned by their owners once they become too big or too dangerous to handle. Some of them die sad, lonely deaths in an uncommon environment.
Others -- like Sammy, a young alligator who escaped from his owner near the western town of Dormagen -- become media celebrities. Sammy slipped into a nearby lake where he unwittingly terrorized swimmers. Happily after a week of frantic searching, he was fished out and handed over to a reptile farm.
That was back in 1994, and media coverage of Sammy was so intense that many Germans still remember him fondly. Next came a giant snapping turtle in the river Main. Subsequent summer sightings of a crocodile in the Rhine and a python in the Neckar river, and of "Kuno" the killer catfish in a lake near Mönchengladbach, were never quite confirmed, but always made headlines. They stand out among stories about escaped exotic pets that have now become commonplace.
"These days more and more people keep reptiles such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes because that is regarded as cool and fashionable," Roland Melisch, an expert on wildlife conservation at the World Wide Fund for Nature , told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
"It becomes a problem when people lose interest in the animals or simply fail to cope with them as they grow. Abandoning them is of course strictly illegal. They can become a problem for indigenous wildlife and, if they're big enough, for people."