I generally believe that the categories of good and evil don't apply to non-human creatures. But the story about the seven vicious "Nazi cows" of Devon shook my conviction, if just for a moment.
Devon farmer Derek Gow made headlines earlier this week when he announced that he had to make sausages out of some of his cattle because of the beasts' continual attempts on his and his staff's lives.
"They were constantly trying to horn us down. We had to run away, or approach them on vehicles, otherwise we'd get killed," Gow told me on the phone.
That's bad enough, but the crucial detail is that the cows in point were Heck cattle—a befringed breed of bovines originally engineered by shady, Nazi-linked German zoologists.
The name of the breed comes from Heinz and Lutz Heck, two brothers (both directors of zoos) who started their quest for a new species of cattle in 1920s Weimar Germany. Their aim was to use domestic cattle to breed back the aurochs: wild, big, wolf-resistant bulls that used to dwell in European forests until they were brought to extinction in 1627.
We had to run away, or approach them on vehicles, otherwise we'd get killed
What started as an intellectual experiment (the Hecks reportedly resorted to cave paintings to make out how aurochs should look like) changed when the Heck brothers' trajectories crossed with that of Hermann Göring, Nazi top brass and keen hunter.
That's probably a main reason behind the animals' violent behaviour, Gow explained. "Göring wanted animals to hunt. He wanted cattle to keep in the forests—animals that were aggressive, fierce, and which he could enjoy hunting," he said. "That's why they tried to make them as aggressive as they could: One of the breeds they used to create the Heck was actually a Spanish fighting cattle used for bullfights in arenas."
Besides catering to Göring's merriment, the large, long-horned cattle the Heck brothers eventually cranked out fit a larger Nazi biological narrative—one envisioning a legendary past Germany populated by Aryan people and, apparently, massive de-domesticated bulls, a traditional fixture of Germanic lore.
It wouldn't be the only time Nazis tinkered with animals' genes for propagandistic ends: the Hecks also worked on a horse breed harkening back to an extinct wild equine, while other Nazi scientists tried to train a battalion of talking dogs.
A vast majority of Heck cattle died at the fall of Nazi Germany—some, allegedly, personally slaughtered by Göring. The survivors (then mainly kept in zoos) wound up being raised in northern Europe, notably in the Netherlands. They're well-known for a particular feature: they make a lot of shit, or, as Gow put it, Heck cows "produce their own body weight in dung every year."
It turns out that it's actually a good thing. "These animals, with their dung and grazing, produce a good habitat for wild animals. That's why I brought them to my farm: They're very good for building up biodiversity," Gow said. Except that, at least in Gow's case, they also had a penchant for charging the farmer.
Funny thing is, Heck cattle have actually been criticized for not being wild enough. While their appearance and temperament may superficially recall their progenitor, experts say they are too small and short to be regarded as real aurochs. That's why over the last years several projects have surfaced, hell-bent on concocting a more convincing primeval bull, for instance the international Uruz venture, or the Dutch TaurOs Project. If they are to succeed, things could get thorny.
"There would be some serious management issues," Claire Barber, from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph back in 2010. "Aurochs were significantly larger than any cattle in existence and they would be potentially dangerous." We might end up missing the Nazi cows.