MOSCOW -- Saturn, an alligator of international intrigue, has died at the Moscow Zoo on Friday at the age of 84.
That in itself made Saturn unusual. In the wild, the normal life span for an alligator is 30 to 50 years.
But longevity was the least unusual aspect of Saturn's biography.
Saturn was born in the wild somewhere in Mississippi in 1936 and was shipped to the Berlin Zoo from which he disappeared on November 23, 1943, in the aftermath of an Allied air bombing campaign on Berlin. One bomb directly struck the zoo's aquarium and, according to reports at the time, all of the alligators and crocodiles in captivity there were killed.
In fact, of the 16.000 animals once kept in the Berlin Zoo, it is estimated that fewer than 100 survived the war. Saturn was one of them.
When he was blasted into freedom in 1943, Saturn was 7 years old, an alligator adolescent. Two-and-a-half years later in June 1946, an almost mature Saturn was discovered and captured by British occupation forces. Custody of the alligator was transferred to the allied Soviet troops in post-WWII Berlin who then sent him on to Moscow where he would live the next 74 years.
It was in Moscow that the intriguing rumor started that Saturn was a part of a pet menagerie that belonged to Adolf Hitler. This undocumented episode with the Fuhrer gave the 11.5 foot alligator a celebrity status even though zoo officials absolved him of any political responsibility.
"Even if, purely theoretically, he belonged to someone," the zoo's announcement of Saturn's death asserts, "animals are not involved in war and politics, it is absurd to blame them for human sins.”
Far from blaming the alligator, officials at the Moscow Zoo treated him as an honored guest. "We tried to take care of the venerable alligator with the utmost care and attention. He was choosy about food," the zoo's obituary said. Even among his keepers, he knew who he liked -- ”He perfectly remembered the trusted keeper.”
"He loved a massage, and if he didn’t like something," he knew how to show it.
If a zoo animal can be a historical figure, officials say this one qualifies.
"Saturn is a whole era for us. There is not the slightest exaggeration," the announcement of his death declared. "He came after the Victory (in WWII) - and met it's 75th Anniversary. It is a great happiness that each of us could look into his eyes, just quietly be near. He saw many of us as children. We hope that we did not disappoint him.”
Death may not end Saturn's public career. It has been reported that his carcass will be preserved and placed on exhibition at Moscow's Charles Darwin Museum of Biology.