I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The aurochs was a beast of impressive dimensions that roamed wild in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Geneticists in Nazi Germany tried to recreate something resembling the extinct aurochs as a testament to Germanic mythology and folklore, and magnificence of the Third Reich.
The Mighty Aurochs
The oldest remains of wild aurochs (Bos primigenius primigenius) date back about two million years.
As more land came under the plough, the aurochs lost its grazing land and habitat. Their last redoubt was the Jaktorów Forest south of Warsaw, Poland. Noblemen kept the dwindling herd going so they could hunt the animals. But, they overdid the killing and the last aurochs expired in 1627.
They were huge beasts. Julius Caesar bumped into them during his Gallic Wars and was greatly impressed: “In size these are little but inferior to elephants.” They possessed a fearsome set of horns, had an aggressive streak, and could exhibit an impressive turn of speed.
This was a combination, added to a weight of up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), that said loudly “Do not approach.” Any Stone Age hunter thinking of taking down an aurochs might suddenly decide he wanted berries for supper after all.
Their ornery nature made them difficult to domesticate, although a couple of sub-species were tamed in the Near East and the Indian subcontinent.
The Heck Cows
Lutz and Heinz Heck were brothers and zoologists in Germany. In the 1930s, they began a genetic back-breeding program with the aim of resurrecting the aurochs, or something like it.
The plan had the blessing and funding of the Nazi Party. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, Lutz’s “idea of breeding back the aurochs dovetailed neatly with the Nazis’ scheme of restoring Europe, through selective human breeding, to its mythic, Aryan past.”
The Hecks received particular encouragement coming from Hermann Göring. The head of the Luftwaffe had the fanciful notion in his head that it would be fun to hunt Heck cattle in the forests of conquered Eastern Europe.
Göring wanted his prey to be fierce and wild, no doubt in order to feel more manly than taking out a bunny rabbit with a bee-bee gun. To achieve the level of ferocity he wanted, Göring suggested grabbing some semen from Spanish fighting bulls.
When Poland fell to the Nazis in 1939, Lutz Heck was given free rein to loot the Warsaw Zoo of any animals he thought might aid his breeding schemes. Then, he and a bunch of Gestapo pals spent an afternoon drinking and shooting the caged animals he didn't want until they had slaughtered almost everything. Lutz and his fellow assassins called themselves “hunters.”
The whole plan to recreate the aurochs came unglued when the Nazis were defeated in 1945 and most of the cattle were destroyed. However, a few survived and they showed that the Heck cattle were a poor knock-off of the aurochs. Here’s Elizabeth Kolbert again: The Heck cattle “are too small, their horns have the wrong shape, and the proportions of their bodies are off.”
But, the collapse of the Nazis didn’t end the quest to rejuvenate the aurochs.
Bringing the Aurochs Back to Life
Ronald Goderie is a Dutch ecologist and the man behind the Tauros Programme. This was launched in 2008, and is part of an initiative called Rewilding Europe. This is a plan to create ten large areas in Europe that will be returned to their natural state.
Goderie says the aurochs is a vital ingredient in this program “So for complete rewilded areas a credible substitute will be needed.” He believes the Tauros Programme can develop a “near 100 percent substitute for the aurochs.” There are other efforts in Europe aimed at bringing back the aurochs.
The idea is that aurochs will become ecological engineers by grazing as they used to and causing the landscape to return to its original state.
In 2015, scientists sequenced the entire genome of the aurochs and this opens the way for the concentrated breeding of animals that show increasing aurochs characteristics.
The Heck Cattle
Meanwhile, the Heck cattle have been pushed aside and are playing no part in the rewilding scheme. But, they haven’t disappeared; there are about 2,000 head of Heck cattle in zoos and reserves in Europe.
Derek Gow is a British farmer and conservationist who keeps rare breeds on his land. In 2009, he bought 13 Heck cattle and installed them on his farm in Devon. By January 2015, seven of them were dead.
Some of the animals turned out to be very bad tempered and they had to be put down. Gow told a local newspaper “The ones we had to get rid of would just attack you any chance they could. They would try to kill anyone. Dealing with that was not a lot of fun at all.”
The Sun “newspaper” of London is a simply dreadful rag in Rupert Murdoch’s stable of appalling media outlets. However, its editors did come up with a good headline to describe Derek Gow’s cull―“The Herd Reich.”
- Greek mythology has it that a Phoenician princess named Europa was abducted and seduced by Zeus who adopted the form of an aurochs as a disguise.
- The global population of cows is estimated to be 1.5 billion and each one of them is descended from the aurochs.
- According to the Dutch writer Cis Van Vuure, the aurochs has “the dubious honour of being the first documented case of extinction.” Four decades later it was the turn of the dodo to become extinct. Since then, countless animals, birds, plants, and insects have vanished from the planet, while the human species has grown exponentially.
- “The Quest to Revive Extinct Aurochs to Restore Ancient Lands.” Mihnea Tanasescu, The Conversation, October 6, 2017.
- “Recall of the Wild.” Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, December 16, 2012.
- The Tauros Programme.
- “Once and Future Giants.” Sharon Levy, Oxford University Press, March 2011.
- “ ‘Nazi Cows Are Trying to Kill Everyone,’ Says Devon Farmer, Plymouth Herald, January 5, 2015.
- “What the Heck Cows: The Weird Story of the Nazi Super Cows.” Siobhan O’Shea, Interesly, July 11, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on March 31, 2021:
Very interesting Rupert. The Nazis I guess wanted to be "super" in everything and this reminds me of The Nazi Lebensborn project for breeding ‘racially pure’ and ‘healthy’ children which was one of the most secret and disgusting Nazi projects. Thanks for sharing this wonderful trivia
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 31, 2021:
Very interesting, Rupert. I hate any species of animal becoming extinct and hopefully scientists can resurrect the Aurochs maybe minus the aggressive nature. Thank for sharing.