WTF

'Hitler's Alligator' Leaves Behind Complicated Legacy at a Moscow Zoo

"Animals are not involved in war and politics. It is absurd to blame them for human sins," the Moscow Zoo wrote on its Facebook page after Saturn's death.
28 May 2020, 4:00am
mississippi alligator zoo serbia
Photo: Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

When pseudonymous Russian author Boris Akunin visited the Moscow Zoo several years ago, he immediately asked to be taken to the crocodiles. "I love them for their extreme positivity," he wrote. "They smile all the time, tears are shed only to remove excess salt from the body, and they open their mouths as if they want to swallow the whole world."

Mississippi alligator Saturn was already 80-years-old when Akunin saw him, but he still growled and flashed his teeth. Akunin also surfaced Saturn's infamous backstory: an unshakeable suggestion that the alligator had once been a part of Adolf Hitler's "personal menagerie." But the Moscow Zoo is exhausted from seven decades' worth of questions about 'Hitler's alligator,' and on Saturday, when it announced Saturn's death at age 84, it attempted to end any further speculation.

"Almost immediately [after his arrival in Moscow] the myth was born that he was allegedly in the collection of Hitler, and not in the Berlin Zoo," the zoo wrote on Facebook. "However even if, purely theoretically, he belonged to someone, animals are not involved in war and politics. It is absurd to blame them for human sins."

There are some parts of Saturn's story that aren't theoretical. He was born somewhere in Mississippi in 1936, although other than a black-and-white picture showing a group of people tying his mouth shut, the details of his early life have been lost. But somehow he made it to Germany and, by the early 1940s, he was living in the Berlin Zoo.

Zoologischer Garten Berlin was inching toward its 100th birthday at the time of Saturn's arrival. It was already known for its ornate enclosures for its elephants and monkeys, while the lions, wolves, and brown bears had been moved into newly designed outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, the zoo and the surrounding Tiergarten were aggressively targeted by Allied bombers during World War II, and by early 1945, it had been reduced to a pile of well-curated rubble.

It was hit during more than a half-dozen attacks from late 1943 through early 1945, and in between raids, some animals were evacuated to zoos elsewhere in the country, a handful escaped into nearby neighborhoods, and some were, uh, eaten by hungry Germans.

"We had meat coming out of our ears," zoo director Lutz Heck said after the incident. "Many of the edible animals which had fallen victim to the air raid ended up in the pot. Particularly tasty were the crocodiles’ tails; cooked tender in big containers, they tasted like fat chicken. The dead deer, buffalo and antelopes provided hundreds of meals for man and beast alike. Later on, bear ham and bear sausage were a particular delicacy.”

According to the zoo, only 91 of its 4,000-plus animals survived the war (or the zoo director's dinner menu), including one hippo, one elephant, one chimpanzee, and Saturn. "How the alligator spent the next three years is a mystery," the Moscow Zoo wrote in Saturn's obituary. "It is only known that the British soldiers found him in 1946 and transferred it to the USSR." The Berlin Zoo's former archivist Dietmar Jarofke once suggested that Saturn might have been taken in by a local. "Back then there were enough crazy people in Berlin who kept such animals at home," he told Stern. "It wasn't forbidden."

Regardless, when Saturn arrived at the Moscow Zoo, he became one of only two alligators on display. (According to Akunin, the Red Army apparently sent a tiger python to the zoo as well. It was named Hitler, and it died shortly after being rehomed.) For more than 70 years, Saturn lived in Moscow and, other than allegedly attempting to bite a keeper's arm off in the 1970s, he was a model tenant.

He had two female companions, and outlived both of them. He never reproduced, so that "Hitler's pet alligator" thing might be the closest that he gets to a legacy. Dmitry Vasilyev, a herpetologist and longtime veterinarian at the zoo, previously told Russia Beyond that there was absolutely zero indication that Saturn had ever been owned by Hitler, but he did say that Hitler was known to visit the Berlin Zoo where he might've seen the alligator—a rather dubious connection.

Saturn's body will eventually become part of the collection at the State Darwin Museum, a natural history museum in Moscow. Whether the questions will continue about his Nazi ties... well, that remains to be seen.