CAREER: Writer, animal trainer and behaviorist, and safari leader. Eden International, founder. Trainer of animals for television series, including Daktari and Gentle Ben.
The Beauty of the Beasts: Tales of Hollywood's Wild Animal Stars, J.P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 1990.
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Mosey: The Remarkable Friendship of a Boy and His Elephant (juvenile nonfiction), Orchard (New York, NY), 2002.
Zamba: The Greatest Lion That Ever Lived, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 2005.
The World's Greatest Elephant (juvenile nonfiction), illustrated by Ted Lewin, Philomel Books (New York, NY), 2006.
ADAPTATIONS: Modoc is under option to be made into a motion picture by Tig Productions.
SIDELIGHTS: Author, animal trainer, and safari leader Ralph Helfer is a well-known animal behaviorist and trainer of animals for movies and television. Helfer pioneered the concept of "affection training" of animals, which occurred to him while recovering from being mauled by a lion, noted Duncan Strauss on the Talking Animals Web site. Helfer's method uses affection and kindness to train wild animals rather than the more traditional methods of intimidation, pain, and fear. Helfer reasons that if an animal could be trained by addressing its negative emotions, it could also be trained by appealing to positive emotions and reactions. His method has allowed him to provide more than 5,000 trained animals to motion pictures and television shows since the early 1960s.
Helfer explains his affection training method and its successes in The Beauty of the Beasts: Tales of Hollywood's Wild Animal Stars. He relates stories of famous animals he has trained, such as the bear in Gentle Ben; an orangutan named C.J.; Modoc, an ailing elephant he acquired and nursed back to health; and Zamba, a lion. He also discusses a number of prominent actors he met during his decades-long career as a trainer, including William Holden, Clint Eastwood, and Bo Derek. Publishers Weekly reviewer Genevieve Stuttaford observed that "Animal lovers will be charmed and entertained by Helfer's menagerie."
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, expands greatly on the story of the elephant that Helfer adopted and saved from certain death. Both born in Germany on the same day, in 1896, Modoc and Bram Gunterstein became close, constant companions. Bram's father was an elephant trainer with the Wunderzircus. When the circus was sold to an American some years later, the promised job of elephant trainer did not materialize for Bram, and he faced the prospect of seeing Modoc shipped off to foreign countries. Defiant, he stowed away on the ship carrying the circus animals, and when the ship sank during a storm in the Bay of Bengal, Bram and Modoc were two of the few survivors. The two lived by working in the teak forests of India, but eventually, the circus owner showed up to claim Modoc and make good on the promise of a trainer's job for Bram. The elephant was hugely successful in the United States, but to Bram's grief, Modoc was eventually sold without his knowledge and disappeared, seemingly forever. Twenty years later, however, coincidence or fate brought man and elephant together again. Helfer bought and rehabilitated Modoc, and Bram eventually reunited with the animal companion of his younger days. Booklist reviewer Nancy Bent noted that "this book will be popular with all animal lovers." In Mosey: The Remarkable Friendship of a Boy and His Elephant, Modoc the elephant is renamed Mosey, and the story is re-told in terms more accessible to younger readers. School Library Journal contributor Vicki Reutter commented that the book's "appeal will be the heartwarming relationship between Bram and his oversized friend."
Zamba: The Greatest Lion That Ever Lived details Helfer's eighteen years with Zamba, a lion he adopted as a cub in the mid-1950s. Zamba was one of Helfer's early subjects for affection training. Though associates feared that the lion would eventually turn on its trainer when it reached adulthood, the expected attack never came. Instead, Zamba became almost as domesticated as a house cat in Helfer's presence. The trainer had to redesign his bed to accommodate both himself and the space-consuming lion, who bunked with Helfer like a favorite cat. Trainer and lion would often drive through Hollywood, the big cat's huge head and shoulders protruding from the sun roof and startling passers-by. Though Helfer and Zamba shared a unique bond, a necessary dental treatment for an abscess reconfirmed that the lion was still, at heart, a wild animal. Despite similar occasional reminders, Zamba remained true to the man who raised him, starring in several shows and the motion picture, The Lion. Helfer tells the story of Zamba's starring role in that film in considerable detail; during that film shoot "the author's bond with his lion becomes a true spiritual connection that will touch the heart of any animal lover," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Zamba "beautifully expresses a simple philosophy so many have trouble following: respect for all living creatures, given and returned," commented a critic in Kirkus Reviews. People critic Lisa Kay Greissinger called the book "a charming read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Helfer, Ralph, The Beauty of the Beasts: Tales of Hollywood's Wild Animal Stars, J.P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 1990.
Booklist, September 15, 1997, Nancy Bent, review of Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, p. 196; July, 2002, Chris Sherman, review of Mosey: The Remarkable Friendship of a Boy and His Elephant, p. 1840.
Childhood Education, fall, 2002, Irene A. Allen, review of Mosey, p. 50.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2005, review of Zamba: The Greatest Lion That Ever Lived, p. 575.
Library Journal, July 1, 2005, Ann Forister, review of Zamba, p. 117.
People, August 8, 2005, Lisa Kay Greissinger, review of Zamba, p. 46.
Publishers Weekly, March 9, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The Beauty of the Beasts, p. 56; August 4, 1997, Paul Nathan, "If You Like Androcles," review of Modoc, p. 36; September 1, 1997, review of Modoc, p. 90; June 13, 2005, review of Zamba, p. 46.
School Library Journal, July, 2002, Vicki Reutter, review of Mosey, p. 136.
TalkingAnimals.net, http://www.talkinganimals.net/ (October 18, 2005), Duncan Strauss, "African Safari: Kenya Imagine Seeing So Many Animals—and So Close?," profile of Ralph Helfer.