MIT Professor lectures On European animal breeding, resurrecting aurochs

The Teale Lecture Series continues with Harriet Ritvo giving a talk on the domestication of wild animals in Konover Auditorium.  Rita is known for her animal studies. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

For centuries, Europeans have hunted, collected and bred animals in pursuit of symbolic nobility and power, said Harriet Ritvo, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during the University of Connecticut’s Edwin Way Teale lecture on nature and the environment at the Dodd Center.

Having driven the mythic aurochs to extinction in Poland during the 1600s, Europeans spent centuries breeding cattle in attempt to bring the creature back to life. 

“The aurochs, in general, has been connected to a certain kind of European ethic nationalism,” Ritvo said. “It’s nostalgia.”

She told the story of two brothers, called the Heck brothers, who each independently tried to breed the aurochs by exploiting cattle that possessed the characteristics each brother considered to align with their own image of the beast. Since it’s extinction, Europeans have valued the aurochs' threatening and powerful symbolism. The Heck brothers in particular, Ritvo said, wanted to bring back the pre-agricultural landscape of Europe by resurrecting a key player in European ecosystems. 

Unfortunately, Ritvo said, the Heck brothers were associated with the national socialism of the Nazi party in Germany and the world regarded their efforts to breed an aurochs as a dangerous Nazi agenda. Ritvo showed a list of headlines from publications printed at the time, some of which read, “Gaint Nazi cows on the lose in Britain” and “Hitler’s Nazi super-cows head to Britain.” 

Even though the Heck brothers were not successful in breeding an actual aurochs, herds of aurochs-like cattle roam Europe today, all of which descend from the Heck brothers’ breeding experiments. They are appropriately called Heck cattle. 

Ritvo talked about the European obsession with breeding the best of the best. Collectors would bring animals from other parts of the world to breed in the less than ideal conditions of England and in what were considered zoos. These zoos were by no means conservation organizations.  

They believed that the best of these creatures would be able to survive such new habitats while the lesser would be eliminated. With breeding, they could create animals that were strong and representative of the nobility that Europeans held so highly. When the aurochs, a strong and powerful creature, was driven to extinction, Europeans continued to believe that the aurochs existed among them. 

The Heck brothers’ debacle "hasn’t meant the end of efforts to resurrect the aurochs,” Ritvo said. 

She mentioned the breeding of toros, which have similar ecological roles to the aurochs, but without the ferocity and threatening characteristics associated with Nazism and the Heck brothers’ efforts. 

“I barely knew anything about the topic,” Javier Morales, a seventh semester biology major, said following the lecture. He came because it was an extra credit assignment in his fisheries and wildlife course. 

He said he was particularly interested in the beginning of Ritvo’s lecture. 

She spoke about the “the transition from earlier zoos to what we have now,” Morales said. "It didn’t began as a preservation approach, it was more about aesthetics. They bred the animals just for the looks.” 


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.