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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Thomas

Liminal Heck Cattle

Heck Cattle are politically interesting for two reasons: the first relates to their origins and the Heck brothers, the second relates to biopolitics and the governance of Heck Cattle as liminal animals – caught between wildness and domesticity.

Heck Cattle are named after the Heck Brothers who first bred them, created them really, in the 1920s and 30s. Heinz and Lutz Heck were German zoologists who managed the Munich and Berlin zoos respectively. They bred the animals we now know as Heck Cattle, in a deliberate attempt to recreate extinct wild bovines, the aurochs, from whom domestic cattle are descended. 

Aurochs were huge, roughly the same size as a bison - bulls could be almost two meters tall at the shoulder and cows weren’t much smaller. Aurochs were sexually dimorphic, with the males and females looking very different - the bulls were black while the cows were red. Both cows and bulls had large, distinctively shaped horns - similar to the horns of  today’s Spanish fighting bulls. Like Spanish fighting bulls, aurochs would have been fierce, aggressive animals, very different from most of the domestic cattle we’re familiar with today. 

In attempting to recreate the aurochs, the Heck brothers were deliberately trying to ‘de-domesticate’ cattle through a process of breeding back’. They wanted to produce a ‘pure’, wild bovine, not tainted or degenerated by domestication - something which was considered a mutation of wild genes.  Part of their  motivation was linked to their association with the German National Socialist party. The Nazi ideology of eugenics extended to animals as well as people, and they were interested in producing a ‘master race’ of cattle for the Third Reich. 

To an extent the Heck brothers succeeded - Heck Cattle are large, although nowhere near as large as aurochs were, and not even as large as some modern domestic cattle breeds. Heck cows and bulls both have horns, although their horns are not as large or as distinctively shaped as the aurochs’ were. And Heck Cattle aren’t sexually dimorphic the way the aurochs were - both cows and bulls can be almost any colour from black to red. Like aurochs though, Heck Cattle are fierce, and  notoriously aggressive to humans.

Despite the, relative, success of the Heck brothers in creating Heck Cattle, the cattle are controversial today - not least because of their association with the Nazis but also because of their liminal status as neither wild nor domestic. 

So let’s back up a little bit and acknowledge the process by which animals go from being wild to being domestic. Human intervention in animal reproduction produced the domestic species we recognize today, including domestic cattle. And it’s specifically human influence on animal breeding, what we call artificial selection as opposed to natural selection, which is seen as a key element of domestication. So even with breeding back, which is supposed to be a method of de-domestication to recreate an extinct wild species, the fact that humans are intervening in animals’ breeding means that some people still consider it a domestication process: in their view it’s essentially impossible for humans to produce a wild animal because if an animal is the product of human intervention then, by default, it’s a domestic species. 

So a major criticism of Heck Cattle is that they’re not actually a wild species, they’re merely a  simulacrum of the aurochs, which leaves them in an interesting position with respect to their relationship with people. While it can be argued that they’re not really wild, they weren't intended to be considered domestic either, so it’s unclear what our relationship with them might be. 

Despite concerns over their provenance and their authenticity, Heck Cattle have been embraced by rewilding advocates because of their potential to help regenerate wilder landscapes; large herbivores are seen as crucial in landscape creation so are a key element of rewilding projects, particularly in Europe. Part of the reason rewilders are so interested in Heck Cattle for this role is that they can live independently from humans - they were bred to be extremely hardy, to be able to survive in harsh conditions, and to be capable of  subsisting on diets that are very low in nutrition without supplementary feeding or any other management by people. Rewilders hope that Heck Cattle can play the role of the aurochs in the landscape – grazing in a naturalistic way, disturbing vegetation and breaking up ground, all of which creates opportunities for other species and so contributes to increasing biodiversity: Jamie Lorimer and Clemens Driessen have written about this in relation to Heck Cattle involved in the Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project in The Netherlands. 

But rewilding, like Heck Cattle themselves, is controversial. While it’s heralded as the holy grail of ecological restoration by its proponents, others have concerns over rewilding, particularly over how much, or how little, human intervention is involved. Heck Cattle have become caught up in these wider debates. In their paper on Heck Cattle in the Oostvaardersplassen, Lorimer and Driessen talk about how Heck Cattle and people become entangled in the landscape of the rewilding project. The extent to which people should, or shouldn’t intervene in the lives of animals involved in rewilding projects is particularly interesting with respect to Heck Cattle because they’re liminal animals - neither wild nor domestic. This has significant implications for how they're conceptualized and therefore how they’re treated. Even though Heck Cattle are hardy and, theoretically at least, capable of living independently from humans, scholars question whether this is really the case, and, even if they are, whether we should allow them to. Do we have a responsibility towards them as a ‘domestic’ species? Or should we allow them their own agency as wild animals? The difficulty is that they are both wild and domestic, and neither wild nor domestic. 

In response to the status of  liminal animals like Heck Cattle involved in rewilding projects like the Oostvaardersplassen, Lorimer and Driessen have identified new systems of biopolitics (the governance of life and death) which relate to our relationships with these animals. These biopolitics are different from those relating to purely wild or domestic animals. They attempt to accommodate the new human-animal relations which emerge as a result of rewilding - these biopolitics will need to continue to evolve if we’re to establish multi-species flourishing in the Anthropocene.


Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).

You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano).Learn more about our team here.  


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