Twice-elected mayor of a Romanian sea resort and ex-prison detainee Nicolae Matei shows off his private zoo
The mayor of the Black Sea town of Navodari, Nicolae Matei, sips a Turkish coffee in a pavilion, a few steps from his large detached villa in the town center.
A short and stocky man of 46, he arches his eyebrows, giving him the suspicious look of a public official who rules over 37,000 people, but is risking prison in a corruption trial.
Suddenly his smile is broad. His arms are open. With a slow move, he turns to his left, beckoning towards something in the distance.
"Llama!" he shouts. “Come to Daddy!”
Nothing stirs inside the enclosure. A llama chews some hay without responding to the twice-elected leader of the local community.
Around the beast’s legs, goats stir and chickens peck. From another cage, I hear baboons, macaques and creatures of an indefinable race.
"It's like in the jungle," says Matei.
A few years ago, the mayor traveled to a South African nature reserve, an event which inspired him to replicate the experience in his home town.
He started to build this zoo in 2009. But at that point he only housed squirrels.
Now, cages packed with tens of different species surround his house, as though a Biblical Ark has crashed onto a Romanian seaside resort.
The mayor intends to build a huge safari park over a few dozens hectares.
“It should have green areas, water and viaducts, as I've seen in other countries,” he says. “All the tourists who come to the seaside would spend a day visiting this park."
The mayor is also a businessman who owns a chicken farm. He imports the animals through his company and many of the carnivores feed on the meat he processes.
As the mayor takes me on a tour of the cages, he carries a large bowl full of fruit and bread. The animals capture his attention. I cannot interrupt him as he feeds them. The macaques prefer blueberries and grapes, while the mayor leaves an orange inside the fence for a baboon.
Matei feeds a three-week old baby deer with two bottles of milk, which the deer finishes off in a couple of minutes. It is a delicate creature, but Matei says she has powerful instincts.
"I used to leave her in the yard,” he says. “You should have seen the dogs running after her. They couldn’t catch her.”
In a cage under a roof hides a kangaroo. Right now he is not hungry.
The piece de resistance of the enclosure are the lions. Both the male and the female are in the mating period, so it is not the best time to bother them.
The male lion walks near the fence, his head dipped, posing a silent threat.
Matei says that he feeds them with only boiled meat, to reduce their aggressive instincts.
But when the male roars, you can hear the anger in his voice echoing between the blocks and along the boulevards of the town.
This is not the only place where one can find lions in Navodari. The industrial resort is packed with bronze and stone statues of the regal feline, emerging between communist blocks or guarding public institutions. I counted at least a dozen in the most visible places.
There is a reason. Matei is born under the sign of Leo. For him, the lion is a symbol of power.
In November 2012, Matei was arrested on corruption charges. He allegedly tried to bribe a police officer, in order to obtain his support in criminal cases under investigation by the cops in the nearby city of Constanta.
A few days after his arrest, around 1,000 residents of Navodari protested in the central square to petition for his release. He spent five months in detention, but his trial continues.
Nothing in this town seems to move without his approval. Every decision that takes place in the town hall is passed unanimously by the council. When Matei was in prison, vice-mayor Florin Chelaru consulted with him twice a week on local policy.
In the documents related to the case, one of the discussions intercepted by Romania’s graft-busting National Anticorruption Department (DNA) reveals how Matei styles himself as ‘The Emperor in Navodari’.
It seems every king needs a jungle.