The Time Germany Kidnapped Hundreds of Stallions in an Attempt to Breed a Super-Horse

iStock.com/Somogyvari
iStock.com/Somogyvari

During World War II, the Nazis invaded foreign countries and stole millions of dollars' worth of priceless valuables, from jewelry to famous works of art. The attempts to recover those stolen treasures have been documented countless times (George Clooney's 2014 film The Monuments Men—and the 2009 book it was based on—among them). Lesser known, however, is the Nazi program to kidnap a treasure of a different kind: hundreds of the world's most prized horses.

It's all because Hitler wanted to create a "super horse." Just as Nazi ideology peddled pseudo-science regarding breeding a human "master race," Hitler also believed he could selectively breed horses to create the finest, bravest, and "purest" warhorses in world military history. This decision was not some extracurricular pipe dream of the Führer, but a deliberate response to the country's poor fortunes during World War I. As Elizabeth Letts writes in her fantastic book The Perfect Horse, Germany's equine industry took a shellacking during the so-called Great War, and Hitler wanted to return the country to its former glory:

"After World War I, several factors combined to almost destroy horse breeding and equestrian sports in Germany. The numbers of equine casualties were so high during the war that the horse population declined by half. In addition, the inflationary conditions in Germany made the sale and upkeep of horses difficult, and to further complicate matters, Germany was required to export horses as part of the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles."

To say the least, when Germany went to war two decades later, horses were very much on Hitler's mind. And despite the country's strong industrial output and recent advances in technology, German leaders genuinely believed they needed more horses for the war effort. (Letts writes that by 1938, their army was using more than 180,000 horses and donkeys—and Hitler was convinced that he needed even more.)

For the task of breeding this assembly line of horses—as well as for creating a perfectly pure "super breed"—Hitler chose Gustav Rau, a hippologist who had spent years tirelessly promoting Germany's horse-breeding industry. To do so, Rau set his eyes on the famous Lipizzaner stallion, a beautiful and regal breed known for its dexterity and fairy-tale looks. Rau believed he could create legions of identical, pure white military horses through aggressive inbreeding of Lipizzaners in just three years, writing, "We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines." (Rau clearly did not understand the link between genetic defects and inbreeding.)

To aid Rau's mission, German soldiers began stealing purebred Lipizzaner stallions from famed stud farms and riding schools across Europe. These kidnapped horses were transported in style, placed in spacious train cars and taken to beautiful, well-kept farms in the countryside. "It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness," Letts writes. By 1942, Rau was in possession of nearly every purebred Lipizzaner in the world.

But when the tides of war began turning against Germany, a Nazi veterinarian at a Nazi stud farm in occupied Czechoslovakia began to fear for the horses's lives. The Russians, who regularly slaughtered and ate enemy horses, were moving in. According to the New York Post, the Russians showed no sympathy for or interest in famed stallions, reporting that, "the fabled thoroughbred racehorse Alchimist was shot to death by marauding Russian soldiers in the spring of 1945 when the stallion refused to load onto their truck." The veterinarian, named Rudolf Lessing, feared that the rare Lipizzaners under his watch would be next.

So Lessing did the unthinkable—he reached out to the Americans and asked for help. He wanted them to steal the horses back.

When word reached General George Patton that the stallions were stuck deep behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia, he sent the cavalry to save them. "Get them," Patton told his men. "Make it fast." (The mission was to be secret because, as the Express reports, "The U.S. Army had agreed with Stalin to advance no further than Germany's border with Czechoslovakia and the horses lay miles beyond.")

With help from Lessing, the commanding officer of the Second Cavalry in Europe, Hank Reed, negotiated a surrender with the occupied horse farm and placed the animals under the American military's watch. In autumn of 1945, 151 horses were loaded onto a boat and taken to America—all of them survived.

"We were so tired of death and destruction," Reed said when asked about the mission to save the horses. "We wanted to do something beautiful."

To learn more, Mental Floss recommends Elizabeth Letts' best-selling book, The Perfect Horse.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

Forget Therapy Puppies—Michigan State Students Brush Cows to De-Stress for Finals

iStock.com/123ducu
iStock.com/123ducu

As more universities are coming to understand just how stressful the rigors of modern academics can be, many institutions have begun bringing dogs onto campus to soothe anxious students during finals week. At Michigan State University, students have a more unique option to help them de-stress: cow time.

According to Click on Detroit, the recent "Finals Stress mooove on out!" event gave students the chance to brush cows at Michigan State's Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center just south of the school's main campus. For $10, participants spent 30 minutes brushing one of the school's 200 dairy cows, an activity designed to relax both the human and the cow.

Not all students come to college with a working knowledge of large-ruminant etiquette, so MSU farm manager Andrea Meade was on hand to show students what to do, prevent them from accidentally spooking the animals, and answer questions about milking and dairy practices.

Studies have shown that petting dogs can help lower your blood pressure, but dogs aren't the only animals that provide people with a psychological boost. A number of animals have been found to help relax humans (though the effect tends to be greater when it's a familiar animal rather than one the person just met), including cows. One 2011 study in Norway found that after working on a dairy farm for 12 weeks, psychiatric patients showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

And the cows need to be brushed whether there are students there or not, so the event presented a mutually beneficial situation. Many dairies employ automated brush systems to keep cows clean and stimulate blood flow, keeping them happier and healthier in the process.

You don't need to be a student to enjoy the calming effects of cattle, though. Upstate New York's Mountain Horse Farm's hour-long "cow cuddling" sessions let you pet, brush, and play with new bovine friends for $75.

[h/t Click on Detroit]

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