Excerpt of The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
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Only prehistoric creatures would do, ones untainted by racial mixing, and
although Lutz hoped to gain influence and fame in the process, his motives were
more personalhe sought the thrill of bringing extinct, nearly magical animals
back to life and steering their fate, hunting some for sport. Genetic
engineering wouldnt emerge until the 1970s, but he decided to use eugenics, a
traditional method of breeding animals which showed specific traits. Hecks
reasoning went like this: an animal inherits 50 percent of its genes from each
parent, and even an extinct animals genes remain in the living gene pool, so if
he concentrated the genes by breeding together animals that most resembled an
extinct one, in time he would arrive at their purebred ancestor. The war gave
him the excuse to loot east European zoos and wilds for the best specimens.
As it happens, the animals he chose all thrived in Poland, their historic
landscape was Bial/owiezÿa, and the imprimatur of a respected Polish zoo would
legitimize his efforts. When Germany invaded Poland, Heck scouted the farms for
mares preserving the most tarpan traits to mate them with several wild strains,
including Shetlands, Arabians, and Przywalskis, hoping to breed back to the
ideal animal, the fierce, nearly unridable horses painted in ochre on Cro-Magnon
caves. Heck assumed it wouldnt take many generations of back-breedingmaybe
only six or eightbecause as recently as the 1700s tarpans still roamed the
forests of northeastern Poland.
During the Ice Ages, when glaciers blanketed northern Europe and a wind-ripped
tundra stretched down to the Mediterranean countryside, thick forests and
fertile meadows gave refuge to great herds of tarpans that roamed the central
European lowlands, browsed the east European steppes, and galloped across Asia
and the Americas. In the fifth century b.c., Herodotus said how much he enjoyed
watching herds of tarpans grazing in the bogs and marshes of what is now Poland.
For ages, purebred tarpans outwitted all the hunters and somehow survived in
Europe, but by the eighteenth century not many remained, in part because diners
prized tarpan meatit was sweet, but more appealingly, it was rareand in part
because most tarpans had interbred with farm horses to produce fertile
offspring. In 1880, pursued by humans, the last wild tarpan mare fell down a
crevasse in Ukraine and died; and the last captive tarpan died seven years later
in the Munich Zoo. At that point the species officially became extinct, just one
more chapter in the annals of life on Earth.
Humans domesticated wild horses about six thousand years ago, and immediately
began refining them: killing the defiant ones for food while breeding the most
genial, to produce a horse that submits more easily to saddle and plow. In the
process, we revised the horse s nature, compelling it to shed its zesty,
ungovernable, evasive wildness. The aloof, free-range Przywalski horses retained
that fury, and Heck planned to weave their combative spirit into the new
tarpans genetic mix. History credits Colonel Nikolai Przywalski, a Russian
explorer of Polish descent, with "discovering" the wild Asiatic horse in 1879,
hence its name, though, of course, the horse was well known to the Mongolians,
who had already named it tahki. Heck factored the tahkis stamina, temper, and
looks into his formula, but he craved even older creaturesthe horses that
dominated the prehistoric world.
What a powerful idealthat sexy, high-strung horse, pawing the ground in
defiance, its hooves all declaratives. Heinz Heck wrote after the war that he
and his brother had begun the back-breeding project out of curiosity, but also
from "the thought that if man cannot be halted in his mad destruction of himself
and other creatures, it is at least a consolation if some of those kinds of
animals he has already exterminated can be brought back to life again." But why
have tarpans to ride if there were nothing worthy to hunt?
Reprinted from The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Diane Ackerman.
With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.