Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Überoxen, Nazis and the Polish Resistance

It seems like not a month goes by without the media reporting that some extinct animal, maybe, could be, cloned at some point in the near future. Generally these stories are just fluff, but very few people know about the attempts in the 1920s and 30s to bring back the Aurochs, a prehistoric Ox that most domestic cattle are derived from. This being the period between the wars the motivation was not so much conservation, but driven by a desire for something pure and strong, a kind of livestock equivilant of the Eugenics movement which was highly influential at the time, not only in Germany, but also the rest of Europe and America.

The man in charge of this experiment was Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo from 1932 to 1945. His memoirs 'Animals my Adventure' are an interesting read, in them he recounts his trips to Africa to collect animals, his attitudes to the Africans would make a modern reader uncomfortable, as he had none of the skill of Gerald Durrell in portraying natives as just as human as 'the rest of us'.

The most striking passage in the book is a description of an Allied air raid that hit the Zoo. If you have ever visited Berlin you will know that the Zoo is in the centre of the city, and very close to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was was used a orientation point by the Allied Air Forces and so the Zoo bore the brunt of many air raids. Many animals were lost, and even to this day there are information boards at the Zoo depicting the damage, to both building and animals, the image of a dead elephant's legs sticking out of the rubble sticks in ones mind.

Not covered in his memoirs are his actions during Nazi Era. When Germany invaded Poland, he took the liberty of raiding the Warsaw Zoo for its best specimens and attempted to make a deal with the director Jan Zabinski. This aspect of his life is covered in the book 'The Zookeeper's Wife' by Diane Ackerman which portrays the lives of the Zoo staff during the war, and the refuge that the Zoo became for the Jewish citizens of Warsaw.

Heck's main interest, as a Zoologist was the Aurochs, he decided that by breeding together varieties of domestic cattle that had characteristics of this ancient beast he could recreate it. This project was begun in the 1920s, and carried on into the 30s with the approval of Hitler and Goering, who hoped that he would be able to create an Aryan Theme park in eastern Prussia, where Germans could go and experience the life of the Aryans.

Ron Jonson goes into detail on this in his radio programme 'Quest for Aryan Cows' which has interviews with Heck's grand-daughter and includes a visit to the park in Munich where the descendants of Heck's cattle live on a island.

Despite their fearsome reputation and the awe in which they were held back in the 1930s, Jon Ronson is not that impressed by them. After all they are really just domestic cattle that are a facsimile for Aurochsen and not the genuine article. Maybe one day we will be able to clone one, but DNA extracting technology would have to be far better than today as the last aurochs died nearly four hundred years ago.

Were we to clone a thylacine or an Aurochs, we would just be recreating the genetic bottleneck that in part led to their extinction and we must think very carefully about how we go about cloning such things should it ever become scientifically viable.

Jon Ronson and the Quest for the Aryan Cow

The Zookeepers Wife - Diane Ackerman

Animals; My Adventure- Lutz Heck

More information on the effects of Nazism at the Zoo, during and after the Nazi Era

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