On Heck Cattle, Aurochs and Nazis

The Aurochs, giant ancestral cattle with a fiery disposition, have intrigued and intimidated humans since the dawn of man. Realistic, unstylized images of aurochs have been found in Lascaux Cave, where they gather around a water source. In the neolithic proto-city Çatalhöyük they were rendered as giants, ferociously attacking hunters. Iron age cults worshipped it as the Lunar Bull and Julius Caesar wrote about them, calling them “a little below the elephant in size.” Because of their impressiveness, later aristocracy of Europe prized them as hunting quarry. The last auroch was hunted to extinction in 1672, making it the first extinction event recorded by humans, predating even the dodo.

But that wasn’t the end of the auroch

Sometime in the 1920’s, Nazi official Herman Göring decided the animal’s ties to Aryan philosophies on genetic purity and its representation in the proto-Germanic rune system, as Ur. And they were cool. As reported by Camal Milmo, “Young men hunted these bulls as preparation for battle and leadership in war. Hunting was a very big part of what people like Goering did.” So he tapped two brothers working at German zoos to assist him in bringing back the animal.

Français : Schéma en SVG d'un auroch faite à p...

Because, I mean, who could resist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lutz and Heinz Heck, both zoo directors and a zoologist and a biologist, respectively, independently attempted to back breed the animal from animals of breeds that resemble the auroch. At the end of World War II, the animals were largely destroyed, with the exception of Heinz’s herd. Some of  the animals were shipped to Devon, England for preservation. Though they are a hardy breed, which may be useful in rewildng of the boggy, lowland forest habitat the aurochs preferred and encouraged through their grazing, the breed is considered a failure.

Because when you want science done right, you don’t involve the Nazis.

Heck cattle are genetically and phenotypically very different from the auroch. They are smaller, of the wrong body type, and lack the appropriate coloring. Some of the animals used in the creation of this breed, including the Spanish Fighting Bull, more closely resemble the Auroch. A more recent attempt at breeding back the Auroch include the Tauros Project, which uses more advanced understanding of genetics to attempt their backbreeding. I’ve looked at their website and there is absolutely no nazism. They seem really nice, actually. Friendly, clean website design.

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3 Responses to On Heck Cattle, Aurochs and Nazis

  1. Pingback: On the unlikelihood of hyena domestication. Or: No, you can’t have one. | Thrill Seeking Behavior

  2. “Because when you want science done right, you don’t involve the Nazis,” may be one of my favorite lines ever. Interesting rest of the article, too, of course. But well done with that line.

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