Footnote: This story was written for Business Daily but it was never published because the Lion Whisperer's promoter gave the same story to another newspaper including the same photographs, and their story got published the day before mine was to appear. The story is two years old but as this blog is something of an archive for me, I decided to place it here.
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (August 2016)
Kevin Costner Is coming to Kenya before the end of the year. The ‘Dancing With Wolves’ movie star will be here making a film with his fellow executive producer Ralph Helfer, the animal behaviorist who wrote true story about an African elephant named ‘Modoc’, which is also the name of the book, the film rights of which Costner now owns.
Modoc the movie will be made both in Africa and in India, says Helfer, 85, who is no stranger- to working with Hollywood stars, supplying them with tamed African animals. Everyone from John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood to Kurt Douglas, Walt Disney and even Marilyn Monroe has called on this gentle, magical man to provide them with both feathered and furry two and four legged creatures to be co-stars in their films.
“Marilyn Monroe needed a raccoon to be in ‘River of no return’, while Clint Eastwood required an orangutan for his movie ‘Any Which Way But Loose” and Kurt Douglas had to have a rattle snake thrown in his face in the film ‘Indian Fighter,” recalls Helfer who occasionally also acted in films like ‘Indian Fighter’ where he had to be the one to throw the snake since none of the other stunt men dared to play around with a poisonous viper.
Yet Helfer says he’s trained everything from snakes and scorpions to leopards, tigers and 500 pound lions to gorillas, orangutans and baby chimps. His skillful sensitivity earned him the name, the ‘Lion Whisperer’, yet lions are just one breed of creature that he’s befriended over the years.
But it’s not as if he grew up surrounded by animals. On the contrary, his family first lived on the poorer side of Chicago, USA, a windy city he was happy to leave at age 11 when his parents split up and his mother moved with her brother’s family to sunny California. “I never went back,” says Helfer who always knew he’d one day surround himself with live creatures and live in Africa.
At first he thought he’d become a veterinarian but before he fulfilled that dream, his plans changed. It shift began while he was still in high school by setting up his own pet shop. “It was my uncle ‘Irv’ who provided the means for me to open the shop,” he says, admitting Irv couldn’t afford to help him buy exotic or domestic animals to sell in the shop.
“So I’d go out and collect lizards, scorpions and snakes; that’s how I began. People also used to give me animals they didn’t want, so the shop gradually grew.”
Fortunately, his school had a work-study program whereby he’d go to school four hours a day and then work another four hours developing marketable skills. That’s how he got through high school and earned himself enough to start a university program to become a veterinarian.
“But I quickly realized that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, so I went back to the pet shop which was actually in the heart of Hollywood,”
By then, he’d already evolved his unique system of working with creatures which he calls ‘affection training.’
“Before me, most animal trainers looked on African animals with fear, so they’d train them using things like whips and ropes and cages, which meant that most Hollywood actors didn’t feel safe working in films that featured animals,” he says.
All that changed however, once the stars started coming into his pet shop and learning how well he related to his animals.
“Cornel Wilde was the first film star to come into the shop and after seeing the scorpions, asked if I could set up a fight scene between two of them which the studio would then magnify for a science fiction movie.”
His first success led to many more jobs on movie sets. The main reason he got so much work, he says, is because his style of taming was fool-proof. “The actors no longer feared working with any kind of creature. And people like Walt Disney wouldn’t work with anyone’s animals but mine.”
Over the next 30 years, Helfer’s animals would feature in 2300 productions. His ‘affection training’ would effectively revolutionize the way wild life movies would be made. His training program involves four basic elements which he says are “like ingredients in a soup. All four must be there for the soup to taste good; so my [affection] training involves love, patience, understanding and respect. All four have to be there or the training won’t work.”
In fact, his training style worked so well that at one point he employed 50 trainers (whom he’d taught) helping him work with the 1500 animals he had in residence at his southern California ranch which he named Africa USA.
But the ranch (which was six square kilometers) didn’t happen overnight. A major turning point in his career came when the actor William Holden (who once owned Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, Kenya) walked into his pet shop and told him he needed a tame super-sized lion who could work well with the 10 year old girl who was set to star in Holden’s next movie, called ‘The Lion’.
Ralph had just the lion for him. Zamba had been found by an American couple when he was small and nearly dead. They never knew what happened to him but they look care of him until they had to go back to the States. Although the lion cub was already tame, their place in New York City was too small. They knew about Ralph and shipped Zamba to his farm where Ralph brought him up as if he were his son (in the Lion Whisperer’s own words).
The next time Helfer saw Holden, he was walking into the star’s 20th Century Fox office with his 528 pound Zamba on a leach, as if the lion was a sweet harmless puppy dog. That was in 1961. By 1962, Pamela Franklin, now 11, and Zamba were being filmed in Nanyuki.
That was the first time Helfer had come to Kenya, but it wouldn’t be the last. He went back to California, sold his ranch and set up his Enchanted Village, a 30 acre animal park (which was nothing like a zoo) which he says had up to 600,000 visitors in its peak year. He also set up his own motion picture production company through which he made both documentary and feature films. But that first trip to Kenya worked some sort of magic on the man.
In ‘The Lion’, there was a scene in which a Maasai warrior wrestles with Zamba, a feat which the studio couldn’t find a real Maasai to enact. “So I was enlisted to play the part,” says Helfer whose whole body was stained black for that one scene.
What was the real eye-opener about his ‘being a black man’ for several months came when he and a few of his Kenyan friends were walking along the street in Nanyuki and one British soldier bashed him for no apparent reason. But it seems the soldier was offended that a would-be ‘African’ would dare to walk passed him without deferring to the white man.
It was an incident that Helfer has never forgotten and which only increased his empathy for local Kenyans, one of whom he would eventually marry named Suzzie Mutua.
But long before he met Suzzie who lives with him today in Tigoni on a tea plantation in Kenya, Helfer would travel back and forth between Kenya and California where he would often appear on TV talk shows with hosts like Johnnie Carson of the popular ‘Tonight’ show, bringing on whichever animal the host would ask for that night.
“Betty White [who had her own TV talk show] had one blind girl on her show who had always wanted to ‘see’ a lion, so I was asked to bring Zamba for her to meet,” Helfer says. In front of millions of late night TV viewers, the young girl sat with Zamba and felt his face and mane and even his sharp teeth. That night Betty had an unprecedented number of viewers, it was such a moving experience to see.
Helfer would eventually sell his animal park and his production company. “I knew from my first trip to Kenya that this is where I wanted to live the rest of my life since I always knew I would live surrounded by animals,” he says.
But in the early Sixties, few if any African animals were endangered, unlike today. Helfer admits he’s nostalgic for the past, but that is one reason why he’s become a writer of animal stories like Modoc, which is about an elephant befriended by a boy who never wants to leave the animal’s side.
That was the book Kevin Costner read and instantly knew he wanted to make into a movie. Fortunately, he’s managed to raise several hundred million shillings to make the Modoc film which he hopes will be even better than his award winning ‘Dancing with Wolves.’ By working closely with Ralph Helfer, there’s no doubt that he will.