A Relic of the Nazi Past Is Grazing at the National Zoo

US Holocaust Museum
4 min readApr 3, 2017
A Przewalski horse grazes in its enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (Jason Fields/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Germany’s Nazis loved nature, as long as it obeyed their rules.

And those rules had less to do with nature than with the Nazi quest to dictate their environment.

“The Nazi lunacy didn’t just involve dominating the genetics of human beings,” Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife, said in a recent interview. “They wanted to dominate the genetic destiny of the entire planet, all of the plants, all of the animals.”

Embodying this principle is Lutz Heck, a character in both her best-selling book and the newly-released movie based on it.

Zoologist Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, and his brother Heinz Heck, director of the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, came to believe that they could bring back extinct species through selective breeding. Fascinated by “pure” and “noble” animals that had vanished from European forests decades and sometimes centuries before, the brothers attempted to restore species, beginning in the 1920s, through “back-breeding,” a process through which domesticated animals are used to create a new breed that resembles their wild, and often extinct, ancestor.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Lutz Heck immediately fell in line with the new leadership, becoming a member of the SS that same year, while his brother distanced himself from the regime and is thought to have refused a professorship offered to him during the Nazi era. But Lutz Heck’s allegiance to the regime won him the support of high-standing Nazi officials, including Hermann Goering who served as a patron for his back-breeding projects. (Goering was the head of the German air force, but also minister of Forestry.) Such work was seen as in keeping with the Nazi concepts of “racial hygiene” and the purity of “races.”

Lutz Heck and the Nazis wanted to, “rip up all of the local plants, get rid of all of the local animals and back breed to what they thought would be a pure form,” Ackerman said.

To do it, the Hecks couldn’t rely on genetic engineering or CRISPR to rewrite genomes. They began their work decades before Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Instead they chose animals they believed had the characteristics they were looking for and bred them together. To “recreate” the extinct Eurasian horse known as the tarpan, they back-bred its domesticated living descendants. They succeeded in producing the Heck Horse, which resembles the tarpan, but is not a genetic copy of that species. Similarly, the brothers attempted to restore the aurochs, an ancestor of domestic cattle, which died out in Poland in 1627. The resulting Heck Cattle, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, still exist in small numbers in Europe today.

Two Heck horses in the Stadt Haag, Austria, zoo. (Christian Jansky/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hecks’ back-breeding efforts drew criticism from scientists as early as the 1950s; many biologists insisted the Heck animals resembled their extinct ancestors neither in genetic nor physical terms.

Heinz Heck remained dedicated to their efforts and surviving the Nazis’ collapse, remained the director of the Hellabrunn Zoo until 1969.

Lutz Heck was not the rapist and murderer he was portrayed to be in the movie version of the “Zookeeper’s Wife.” But he was guilty of stealing famous and valuable animals from zoos in Nazi-occupied Europe, including the Warsaw Zoo, whose overseers Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the focus of the film.

Heck’s looting from foreign zoos landed him in hot water with Soviet officials who wanted to arrest him as a war criminal after the fall of Berlin, and as a supporter of Nazism, he lost his post as director of the Berlin Zoo in 1945. But ironically, Heck’s pilfering of zoo animals may have prevented the extinction of the world’s only true wild horse.

Przewalski’s (shuh-val-skee’s) horse, native to the steppes of central Asia, is the only species of horse that has never been domesticated. (“Wild horses,” like the American mustang, are not truly wild; they are the descendants of domesticated horses that have gone feral.) Przewalski’s horses (commonly known as P-horses) survived because they were extremely rare and endangered animals, and Heck, representing the Nazi occupation effort, appropriated them from occupied countries (as at the Warsaw zoo) to show off in German zoos. He was also eager to use the wild horses as part of his attempt to back-breed the extinct tarpan.

As a result, by the end of World War II, the only two zoos in the world that had P-horses were both in the German Reich: the Munich Zoo, run by Heck’s brother Heinz, and the Prague Zoo, which was in the German-annexed Czech lands. These 13 animals were the last Przewalski’s horses, for by the 1960s, the species was extinct in the wild. From nine members of this tiny captive population, zoo officials were able to pull the population back from extinction.

Today, many zoos exhibit Przewalski’s horses, including the Smithsonian National Zoo, whose Front Royal campus boasts the first foal, a female born in 2013, produced by artificial insemination. The Smithsonian National Zoo worked with many other organizations to reintroduce wild herds back to the Mongolian steppes in the 1990s.

In 2005, the status of P-horses was changed from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered”; several hundred exist in wild herds today. While Lutz Heck struggled with limited success to recreate extinct species, his looting of animals for Nazi Germany helped to save the world’s last truly wild horse.

Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice, Director, Division of the Senior Historian, The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies



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