And the last remnants memory destroys — W.G Sebald, The Emigrants
He’s born in 1936, in Mississippi. The same year, he’s moved to Berlin. In ’43, during the allied carpet bombings of Berlin, he escapes captivity. Around 10,000 animals die. For the next three years, his whereabouts are unknown. In ’46, he’s captured by British soldiers. They hand him over to the Soviets. The Soviets bring him to Moscow as a trophy, along with a python. They share a nickname: “Hitler.” The python dies soon after. Around this time, Saturn is given his official name. In the 50s, a female specimen is given to the Moscow Zoo by the US, as a gesture of goodwill. Her name is Shipka. Saturn and Shipka do not have any offspring. Shipka dies soon after. Saturn becomes depressed and refuses to eat. Some years later, he’s introduced to a new mate. Her name is lost to history. As a demonstration of his gentle character, children are allowed to poke him with a broomstick. A drunken visitor throws a boulder at his head to wake him up. A group of tourists hurls bottles at him. When he’s moved to a new enclosure, he refuses to eat again. Each time, he comes close to death, but each time he survives. He outlives the average lifespan of his species by at least 30 years. Saturn the Alligator passes away on May 22, 2020.
Saturn’s biography is mostly apocryphal. Not much is known about his time in Soviet captivity, and even less about his years in Nazi Germany. Documents detailing his transfer burned down with the archive of the Moscow Tourist Bureau in the 1950s. The Berlin Zoo has long maintained that its archives have burned down during the war. 1 Out of the photos of the Berlin Zoo in the Nazi Era that appear on the internet, none of them show Saturn, or any other reptilian for that matter. Even though Saturn’s claim to fame is his historicity, he is one of history’s missing images.
We know this much for certain. There are images of anti-aircraft installations on top of the zoo’s famous towers, and there are images of the rubble and destruction that the Allied bombings have brought. Two separate diary entries mention escaped crocodiles2, which lends some credibility to the idea that Saturn had roamed free in Berlin. One of them mentions a crocodile only in passing, but brings up a curious incident involving a tiger:
Crocodiles and giant snakes are supposed to be lurking in the hedge- rows of the Landwehr canal. An escaped tiger made its way into the ruins of the Café Josty, gobbled up a piece of Bienenstich pastry it found there—and promptly died. Some wag, who drew uncomplimentary conclusions regarding the quality of Josty’s cake-making, was sued for libel by the Konditorei’s owner. The Court ordered a post-mortem of the dead animal which found, much to the satisfaction of the confectioner, that the tiger’s death had been caused by glass splinters found in its stomach.
Another, written some years after the war, deals with a dead crocodile specifically:
George tried to use the sidewalk, but it was blocked with furniture and suitcases…. He stumbled over clothes and lampstands with their cords which had been dragged through the dirt. He suddenly noticed that some people were moving to get out of the way of something, while others were stepping over a grey body in the middle of the road. It was a dead crocodile that had presumably escaped from the zoological garden or had been flung there by the explosions … . People walked over it without looking. Everyone was in a hurry.
Whether these accounts contain some truth is unverifiable. I have not found any records of a trial involving Café Jotsy, or photographic evidence of crocodiles in the street. Catastrophic times often conjure up fantasies and images involving animals, lending an apocalyptic overtone to the whole situation. When human activity slowed down due to COVID-19, rumours and falsified images spread about dolphins returning to Venice canals, an endangered Malabar civet returning to the streets of Calcutta, an orangutang obsessively washing her hands, and a lion let loose on the streets of Moscow, just to name a few. Even though these might be dismissed as just another instance of the “fake news” epidemic brought about by irresponsible use of social media, there is something fabulistic about these stories. By invoking exotic animals into the spaces of our lives, we underline the state of exception that we are living in. If animals and humans share urban space on almost equal terms, the symbolic order is suspended.
But death and destruction in Berlin also suspended the symbolic order between human and animal, the observer and the observed. As the allies bombed Berlin and hit the zoo, people started consuming wildlife that usually is not a part of the human diet. The zoo director, Heinz Heck, wrote:
We had meat coming out of our ears. 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.
Animals were also called upon to engage in human affairs. As the Allies were moving upon Berlin, the Werchmart blocked a bridge with a streetcar on it’s side to slow their advance. The zoo director’s brother, Heinz Heck, who was once married to a Jewish woman and was briefly interred at Dachau, led an elephant to drag the streetcar away and clear up the blockage. After the war was over, elephants were made to clean up the rubble of wartime destruction.
Saturn’s whereabouts during these events are unknown. This lack of information has contributed to the urban legend that Saturn was Hitler’s personal alligator. This is hardly surprising, considering that we wish to ascribe to dictators certain characteristics of caricature villains.3 The only pet that Hitler is known to have kept while he was in power was his German Shepard, Blondi. Nevertheless, the director of the Moscow Zoo thinks that not only is it plausible, but also highly likely that Saturn saw Hitler during one of his visits to the zoo. If this is true, Saturn was quite possibly the last living creature that has seen Hitler up close, face to face. The last human witness known to have met Hitler, his unapologetic bodyguard Rochus Misch, died in 2013. Saturn outlived him by seven years.
Would Saturn remember? We can’t converse with animals, and animal agency is shrouded in mystery for us. We neither see them as historical actors, nor as witnesses. As years went by, visitors to the Moscow zoo knew less and less about Saturn’s journey. His German years would only be related to groups of visiting schoolchildren, the same ones who would poke him with a broomstick. Even the symbolic weight that animals carry fades over time. When Saturn died in May 2020, international news publications seized the chance to write a sensational story, that would potentially distract from the Covid-19 news cycle. Saturn got his 15 minutes of fame, and now his taxidermy body will be put up on display at the Moscow Darwin Museum.
In 1993, during a constitutional crisis, tanks moved towards Moscow. The rumbling reverberations from the suburban highways could be felt in the zoo. It is said that Saturn cried out loudly and incessantly. “Must be that he’s reminded of the Berlin war,” said the zookeepers.
This claim proved to be an attempted whitewash of history, as documents detailing the zoo’s entanglement with the Nazi Regime resurfaced in 2002. Nevertheless, the archive remains mostly inaccesible, even to historians working on the subject. See Gary Bruce - Through the Lion Gate (2007).↩︎
Crocodiles and aligators are often confused with each other, owing to their similar appearance. An alligator is a type of a crocodillian.↩︎
Although it is likely that Idi Amin did, in fact, feed his opponents to crocodiles.↩︎