Where politics meets zoology


From rearing horses to hungry sparrows – the provocations delivered to the world’s dictators by members of the animal kingdom.

The US comedian WC Fields famously said never to work with animals and children. I suspect President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan may have been thinking something similar earlier this year, when a horse sent him sailing through the air in a stadium packed full of his terrified subjects – I mean, loyal citizens.

Well, maybe. According to a former US ambassador whose assessment was made public on Wikileaks, Berdymukhamedov is not the sharpest tool in the box. So perhaps he was just thinking – “Hey, where did that horse go?” And yet consider the danger: In a matter of seconds he could have been rendered a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman but ended his days in a wheelchair. As it is, Berdymukhamedov revealed to his people that he is not the all-wise munificent god man of propaganda, but rather a tubby 55-year-old geezer who’s not very good at riding a horse. Hell, those six other guys in the race were probably letting him win.

Certainly the regime understands this danger: Immediately after Berdymukhamedov’s tumble, Turkmen officials summoned all the journalists present and instructed them to delete all footage. Even so, some of it slipped out online – not that anybody living in Turkmenistan will see it, of course.

Still, this incident made me think about dictators and animals. Berdymukhamedov climbed up on a horse to prove that he is a real, virile Turkmen chieftain, and not just a portly ex-dentist. But what about other tyrants? I’d like to imagine that they all have pet lions and tigers, and that they maybe feed girls in metal bikinis to them from time to time, like Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. But is this true? Or are they as boring as the rest of us?

I have to admit that the evidence points to the latter conclusion. My research turned up an image of Saddam Hussein inspecting a tiger in a zoo, and another of Mussolini fondling a lion cub. But that was about it for exotics, though I did see a picture of Colonel Gaddafi with some camels. But Gaddafi was a son of the desert, so a camel was no more exotic to him than a fluffy sheep is to me, a Scotsman.

Then I thought about Lenin. Recently I read The State and Revolution, but nowhere in that book does Lenin mention animals. He’s so busy banging on about the dictatorship of the proletariat that he forgets to let us know whether he’s a cat or dog lover. Fortunately I found a picture of him in his office stroking a cat that looked very contented. So did Lenin: He must have just given the order to shoot some priests. The same website also had an image of Mussolini with a cat. And so it seems that the first fascist dictator and the first communist dictator were both cat lovers.

By and large, however, dogs seem to dominate the affections of totalitarians. Ceausescu liked dogs, Kim Jong Il liked dogs (poodles, naturally) while Hitler’s dog Blondi was a celebrity in Nazi Germany. No, really: Hitler liked to pose with Blondi for propaganda portraits, since being an animal lover was part of his official persona. And Hitler really did love Blondi, even sleeping with the pooch in his bunker. Indeed, he loved Blondi so much that when the time came to commit suicide, he decided to test out the cyanide on his beloved pet first…. No, wait – that doesn’t make sense. Ah, well.

As for Stalin, I hunted high and low but I couldn’t find any reference to Stalin and animals. He did, however, enjoy gardening, and once grew a pear he named after Lenin. I do know that when Stalin was exiled to Siberia he became obsessed with wolves, and whenever he was bored in politburo meetings he liked to doodle wolves in the margins. But he never actually had a pet wolf.

Meanwhile, every now and then you find a dictator who develops a strong loathing for a specific animal. Take Mao, for instance. His wife referred to herself as Mao’s dog – “whoever he wanted me to bite, I bit,” but Mao’s personal physician said that the dictator “… had no friends, and his only entertainment was sex.” That doesn’t leave much room for teaching a parrot how to talk. But speaking of birds, it is true that Mao really, really hated sparrows? Indeed, he hated them so much that in 1958 he instructed the Chinese peasants to kill them, which caused a massive famine as all the pests that the sparrows had hitherto eaten were now free to devour China’s crops. Oops.

I think then that the conclusions are clear: Dictators should stay away from horses and sparrows. Meanwhile, if Kim Jong Un really wants to establish himself as a heavyweight champion among dictator-nutcases, the field is wide open in the realm of fauna, since his predecessors have been so dull and well, predictable. Attention Dear Leader! It’s not too late to get a huge carnivore, and to put it on a diet of humans. You know, like Jabba the Hutt and that girl in the metal bikini in Return of the Jedi.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.