May 27, 2020

The Amazing Life of Moscow's Gator

The Amazing Life of Moscow's Gator

It's not entirely certain how old the Moscow Zoo's alligator Saturn was when he died this weekend, but he was clearly a survivor. Initially born wild in the Mississippi, Saturn was sent to the Berlin Zoo in 1936. Reports differ on whether he was just a baby or already an adult when he was transported to Germany, but Saturn's youngest age at time of death was 84.

The reptile from the American South was in the zoo during World War II and, through some miracle, survived the destruction. According to the Moscow Zoo, Saturn survived the Allied bombing campaign in November 1943, when the Berlin Zoo was destroyed and 20 to 30 alligators were killed. Saturn however not only survived, his whereabouts for the next three years are a mystery. 

Saturn in the Moscow Zoo
Saturn in the Moscow Zoo

"One version of events is that Saturn survived three winters on the streets of the Third Reich's capital," the Moscow Zoo said. Though alligators can go into hibernation in cold weather, the idea that Saturn floated in the Spree River as the Soviet army took the city seems farfetched. 

A retired archivist of the Berlin zoo said it was possible that Saturn was kept in an apartment for part of this missing time: it was not unheard of to keep exotic animals back then, and at his age at the time, he would have been much smaller than the three-and-a-half meters he reached toward the end of his life.


"Recollections of Saturn"

Whatever transpired, it was British soldiers who captured the alligator somewhere in the British Zone of occupation after the end of the war, and in 1946 they handed him over to the Soviets. Initially, when he began his long life in Moscow, he was nicknamed "Hitler." It was only later that the Moscow Zoo named him Saturn. Unfortunately, documentation about Saturn's precise history was lost in a fire in the 1950s.

The Moscow Zoo eventually received a female alligator as a potential mate for Saturn. Shipka was younger, but unfortunately died when laying her eggs, and Saturn was so desolate he refused food for a time. In 1993 during the putsch, when tanks passed close by the Zoo on the Garden Ring, Saturn was reportedly so distressed he cried out. His keepers assumed he thought his home was getting bombed again.

Saturn was said to enjoy being massaged by his keepers with a brush, and apparently had a fairly  peaceful demeanor, even though sometimes he gnawed on concrete structures when provoked by males in his vicinity. He suffered from rumors of being Hitler's personal pet, with some visitors hurling objects at him. The zoo eventually had to erect a thick wall around his enclosure to protect him. 

The majestic creature from segregated American South witnessed many of the most momentous events in the twentieth century history: from the rise and fall of Hitler to the end of the Soviet Union. The stories he could tell!

The zoo said Saturn will be commemorated in Moscow's Darwin Museum of Natural History.

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