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When the Nazis Tried to Bring Animals Back From Extinction

Lutz Heck is the villain in the new movie The Zookeeper's Wife. The real life Lutz Heck (director of the Berlin Zoo) not only plundered the Warsaw Zoo, but he directed a Nazi animal breeding program. It was a continuation of the work he had begun with his brother Heinz (director of the Munich Zoo) before the Nazis came to power. They were trying to "back breed" domestic animals to recreate their wilder ancestors. One was the wisent, the European bison that was close to extinction, another was the auroch, wild cattle that had gone extinct in 1627. The practice of back breeding involves selecting existing animals with some of their ancient ancestors' traits and breeding them to bring out those traits in their offspring. But the rise of the Nazi party separated the brothers. Heinz became a political prisoner, while Lutz joined the party and intrigued them with his experiments.

“Göring saw the opportunity to make nature protection part of his political empire,” says environmental historian Frank Uekotter. “He also used the funds [from the Nature Protection Law of 1935] for his estate.” The law, which created nature reserves, allowed for the designation of natural monuments, and removed the protection of private property rights, had been up for consideration for years before the Nazis came to power. Once the Nazis no longer had the shackles of the democratic process to hold them back, Göring quickly pushed the law through to enhance his prestige and promote his personal interest in hunting.

Lutz continued his back-breeding experiments with support from Göring, experimenting with tarpans (wild horses, whose Heck-created descendants still exist today) and wisent. Lutz’s creations were released in various forests and hunting reserves, where Göring could indulge his wish to recreate mythic scenes from the German epic poem Nibelungenlied (think the German version of Beowulf), in which the Teutonic hero Siegfried kills dragons and other creatures of the forest.

The idea of an forest preserve full of ancient wild animals was one reason Göring was so excited about the annexation of Poland. Read the story of Heck's breeding experiments and what happened to those animals at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Henryk Kotowski)

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