Five bizarre animal breeding programmes from totalitarian states

If there’s an idea behind totalitarianism it’s that it is possible and desirable for human life to be centrally controlled. Unsurprising this has also affected how dictatorships think about nature.

What totalitarian states choose to breed shows us a lot about how they interacted with nature. These bizarre projects served as propaganda, an expression of crazy romantic notions, an outlet for yet more misanthropy, and even served as a demonstration of dissent.

1. Heck Cattle

800px-XN_Heck_Cattle_0033Lutz and Heinz Heck were German zoologists in the 20s and 30s. They wanted to recreate wild versions of domestic animals by breeding for qualities similar to those found in extinct undomesticated breeds.

The most famous are Heck Cattle. The first bull of this breed was born in 1932, before the Nazis took power, but the whole project was quickly surrounded with Nazi ideas.

In 1940 Konrad Lorenz, another Nazi zoologist developed the theory that civilisation and domestication had made humans and animals made less beautiful, more sexually active and more prone to mutation, such as different skin colours. Heck Cattle were an attempt to purify the bovine race. Göring, the head of the project, envisioned a new breed of prehistoric Aurochs that the Germans could hunt in vast wildlife reserves in Poland.

The attempt to recreate some idealised, racially pure past was of course a complete disaster. But the poor cows weren’t racist themselves. Despite suffering in the final stages of the war they still exist today. The problem is, they’re basically big, bovines with a reputation for aggression. This reputation may or may not be fair, but the creators believed it was, and few farmers really want a herd of angry Nazi cows.

2. The Manpanzee

Ilya Ivanov was a Russian scientist who dedicated a large part of his career to the question of whether humans can breed with Chimpanzees. His failure may lead us to the conclusion that they can’t, but he was hampered by three problems: a lack of financial and political support, a lack of human volunteers, and a lack of chimpanzees.

In 1927 he got funding from the Soviet government, arguing that breeding humans with an animal would be a blow against religion. He used the money to artificially inseminate female chimpanzees in French New Guinea. When this failed he tried to reverse the experiment in Russia. In both cases he only had one male donor, and the male chimpanzee died before the experiment began.

3. Heck Horse

SteppentarpanAnother Heck project. This was an attempt to breed back a Tarpan, a species of wild horse believed to have gone extinct in 1909. They’re meant to be calm, intelligent, and curious. They don’t mind being ridden, but don’t like being told where to go. So, it’s a small horse, but that’s okay because you can’t steer it anyway. Good job, Nazi Science. Seriously.

4. Himmler’s Angora Rabbits

Another giant angora rabbit, not related to the Nazi breed
Another giant angora rabbit, not related to the Nazi breed, which did not survive

Of all the projects on this list, this is the one I find most intensely disturbing. I feel I should apologise for including it, really. Himmler’s “Project Munchkin” was a project to breed large white fluffy rabbits. The rabbits could be shaved, and were very well looked after, providing a cheap, humane way to get fur. Himmler produced a loving photo album of the project and saw his humaneness to animals as a sign of German greatness.

Sickeningly, these rabbits were kept in concentration camps and looked after by inmates. People were actually executed for not showing enough care and attention to rabbits. Himmler’s care for animals unfortunately didn’t extend to his own species.

5. The Domesticated Silver Fox

pupsA Soviet scientist called Dmitri Belyaev began a project to breed foxes in 1959. He was interested in breeding away the fear reaction, and breeding for sociability. These foxes now whimper for attention, wag their tails and enjoy making friends with humans.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the project has had funding issues, but foxes have been sold as pets. The project is still giving us insights into how humans would have first domesticated dogs and cats.

This is possibly the only successful and moral experiment in this list. So it’s worth noting that the scientist involved was a bit of a rebel. He was interested in genetics in Stalin’s Russia, where it was considered a false, capitalist science. By the time the Silver Fox project had began, Russia was becoming slightly less insane, but still in the early years this project was carried out against the official state ideology.

There are, apparently, foxes that were bred to be aggressive instead. But we won’t dwell on that.


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