Ironically, the breeding experiments that thrived with Heck's ambitions helped to save scores of rare plants and endangered animals. But understand-ably bitter about Heck's Nazi ties and motives, Polish patriots were (and still are) quick to point out that these "tarpans" are technically counterfeits, like the descendants of the Heck-bred aurochsen, or wild oxen, on display elsewhere in Europe. Some zoologists, who prefer to speak of "near-tarpans" and "near-aurochsen," associate the animals with political agendas. They paint Heck as a con man who staged a colossal Nazi hoax by creating new breeds, not resurrecting extinct species. But Herman Reichenbach, in International Zoo News, envisions an important role for the pseudo-throwbacks: "They can still help preserve a natural environment of mixed forest and meadows.... And as a feral type of cattle, the aurochsen may also be able to enhance the gene pool of a domestic animal that has become impoverished genetically."
There are many forms of obsession, some diabolical, some fortuitous. Strolling through Bialowieza's mass of life, one would never guess its political dramas, including the role it played in Nazi ambitions.
Diane Ackerman has published several nonfiction books, including the best seller A Natural History of the Senses.
Adapted from The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman. Copyright © 2007 by Diane Ackerman. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.