It’s not often the death of an alligator is a cause for reflection, let alone historical reflection. After all, the huge and toothy reptiles are “not involved in war and politics,” as a representative of the Moscow zoo recently explained – at least, usually they are not: “It is absurd to blame them for human sins,” the spokesperson concluded. It is notable this would have to be said, but we are speaking of Saturn, who was long rumored, falsely, to have been Adolf Hitler’s alligator.
That was unnecessary. Alligators are fearsome enough without any association with the Third Reich.
Saturn began life as an egg in a clutch buried in the warming mud of a riverbank, no doubt, in the state of Mississippi, in about 1935. There seems to be one surviving photograph of young Saturn, which shows him “ready for transport,” according to a German reporter who saw the photograph in Moscow, “tied with thick ropes and a wooden beam between the mighty pine trees.”
We do not know how he got his name, or whether it was because someone assumed an alligator would be slow and gloomy, or saturnine; but Saturn is the same in English and German – and he was bound for the Berlin zoo, in the city’s Tiergarten park. It had been opened in 1844 by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. In 1913, it added an aquarium, where Saturn would live after 1936.
Late in 1943, having had enough of German bombing raids over British cities, the Royal Air Force sought to make Germany feel the same pain in the Battle of Berlin. On the night of Nov. 22-23, hundreds of Avro Lancaster bombers pulverized areas west of the city center, killing approximately 2,000 Berliners, rendering 1750,000 homeless and destroying much of the zoo. Seven of its eight elephants were killed, along with a black rhino, a chimpanzee, an orangutan, two giraffes, two midget hippos and half of the antelope and deer. The aquarium was destroyed. The next morning, Berliners found four dead alligators on the street nearby, flung there by the explosion. This, apparently, was when Saturn escaped. Perhaps he thought, within the mayhem, it was his chance to begin a new life – but he was still an alligator in Berlin in 1943. And he was about 8 feet long.
Sadly, we do not know where he went, what he ate or the things he saw (or what Berliners, if they saw him, made of him – “Das ist ein alligator!”) until Saturn resurfaced in 1946, in the hands of British soldiers in their occupation zone of western Berlin. They handed him over to the Red Army as a war prize.
In July of that year, he was brought to the Moscow zoo, where he proved a great and unique attraction, especially when the rumor got around that he had been Hitler’s pet. In time he was provided with a suitable mate, Shipka, a gift from the U.S., and he had offspring. In 1993, when he was already venerable – in the wild, alligators seldom live more than 50 years – he was startled by the vibrations of Russian tanks during the stand-off with Boris Yeltsin, and cried out. A zookeeper said Saturn was remembering the Battle of Berlin.
Saturn ate sparingly and had a Lacoste sponsorship until he finally died on May 22, at the age of 84, the oldest recorded alligator.
“He saw many of us when we were children,” the Moscow zoo said in a prepared statement. “We hope that we did not disappoint him.” He will be stuffed and exhibited in Moscow’s Charles Darwin museum of biology, the zoo said.