Read an Excerpt
The Beauty of the Beasts
Tales of Hollywood's Wild Animal Stars
By Ralph Helfer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Ralph Helfer
All rights reserved.
The grass was damp from the early-morning dew as we sat on a small hillock against a majestic old acacia tree. Zamba, my lion, lay Sphinxlike beside me, scanning the African plain 1,000 feet below. Pam, a mere pixie of a child actress, sat close, nestled against my shoulder. One of my companions was huge and powerful; the other, innocent and trusting.
A warm breeze blew across the ridge; the silence was broken only by the lion's heavy breathing.
It was time.
I got up and dusted off my jeans, and we headed up the slope. Zamba walked between Pam and me, with Pam's hand resting gently on his thick, golden mane. She could barely see over his back.
We stopped under the swaying arches of a giant yellow fever tree. Just ahead were the camera and crew, quietly waiting to film, for the first time ever, a 68-pound, nine-year old child wrestling a full-grown, 528-pound lion. I knelt down beside Pam, and our eyes met.
"Pam, you must remember the things I've taught you, especially that Zamba is very strong and that you must never get under him, since his weight is too much for you."
Pam's eyes twinkled, and she broke into a smile.
"Don't worry, we'll do just fine."
I stood up, ruffled Pam's hair, and we headed toward the shooting location.
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned. Pam's mother was there.
"Mom!" Pam gave her a hug. "What are you doing here? I thought you had to wait for us down below."
There was an embarrassed silence.
"I know I shouldn't be here, Ralph," Mrs. Franklin blurted out to me, hugging Pam to her. "But Pam is my daughter. My only daughter." I could see a bit of fright edging across the corner of her lip. She continued, "And I love her dearly."
"Oh, Mommy, nothing's going to happen to me," Pam said in her lilting English accent. She looked up at me, her Peter Pan haircut accentuating her large brown eyes. Her whole face seemed to say, "I trust you."
"I'm not questioning your judgment, Ralph, but I'm just a little scared for her," Mrs. Franklin said. "This is the first time Pam will be working alone with Zamba."
"Mom," Pam protested, "I've been training with Zamba for three months! He wouldn't hurt me. That's just silly." She put her hands on her hips. "Zamba loves me! And I love him! I love all animals — you know that, Bwana Simba!"
I smiled. It was the first time she'd called me that. "Where did you hear 'Bwana Simba'?" I asked her.
"The Africans told me that anybody who can handle lions like you do should be called that."
I gave Pam's shoulder a little squeeze, then turned to her mother. "Look, Mrs. Franklin, I feel about Pam the way that I would about my own daughter. There's no way I would put her in any sort of jeopardy."
There was a deep sigh. Pam's mother took her daughter's hand, and then mine. She was trembling. "Okay, Bwana. I'll wait for you both down below."
She gave Pam a hug and headed back down the slope.
Zamba was getting restless, so we continued on to the site.
The view from the top was fantastic — one could see for miles in all directions. I settled Zamba down onto the soft grassy area where the scene was going to take place.
Bill Holden was the star of the movie. He sat with his back against an acacia tree. As I shot a look in his direction, he smiled an "I'm with you" smile. The crew, however, seemed unusually quiet. They were huddled in small, murmuring groups, their voices kept at a whisper. It set the tone of a funeral. I wanted to scream, "It's okay!! Zamba won't hurt her, he loves her!"
I motioned Pam to take her place at Zamba's side. The scene needed to look like two innocent children at play — rolling over and over, one on top, then the other, pulling hair, mane, holding hands, paws.
A lion's favorite prey are the young. The high-pitched voices and quick, fragile movements excite them. Only Zamba's love for the little girl would keep him from harming her.
Zamba turned his great head. His enormous eyes settled on Pam, looking at her, through her — and then he turned away to focus on the animals far off on the veldt.
"Are you ready, honey?" asked the director.
"Yes," came Pam's small voice.
What was I doing? Can a man have this much faith in a lion? Trainers the world over had turned the job down, saying it was impossible, that no adult lion could work safely with a child. I knew otherwise. So did Pam. We knew!
She's my only daughter.... The words kept coming back to me.
I positioned Pam on her side, lying beside Zamba. He looked down at her, giving a low, throaty sound, similar to those that lionesses make to their cubs.
"Okay, Pam?" I asked.
"Okay, Bwana." She smiled.
I touched Zamba's foot as a reminder to him to keep his claws sheathed. Then I put my finger on his wet nose. "Stay!" I said, and backed away to a spot near the camera. A voice rang out, "Roll camera! Action!"
Pam started to talk to Zamba.
"Hi, big boy. How's my baby? You want to play?" Zamba responded. He sat up. Pam lay below him. Don't get under him, I said to myself. Easy, Zamba.
Zamba looked down at her like a cat looking down at a mouse. Then he moved.
One big mass of hair, muscle, and tawniness encircled Pam. He gathered her little body up and scooped her to him. She was a leaf caught in the wind. Her frail arms stretched out, as if to hold a teddy bear.
Zamba's eyes became intense. Pam's head was directly below his jaws. Then a cold shiver ran through my whole body as I saw Zamba reach down with his mouth and bury his huge head into her neck!
Like a steel spring, I shot straight up, a thousand horrors racing through my mind.
Then I heard it. A giggle ... then another, like water tumbling down a brook. Zamba was licking Pam's neck, and his tongue was tickling her. My God, what a relief! What ecstasy! I settled down, and for the next few minutes we all watched the little girl and big lion "wrestle."
Zamba engulfed Pam in his paws. She tickled him and, rolling over on top, buried her head in his thick mane. They were like two rough-and-tumble kids. After what seemed like an eternity, the director yelled, "Cut!" and the crew burst into applause. A few tears appeared and were quickly brushed away.
Bill threw his arms around me. "Ralph, you did it!"
"Weren't they great?"
Zamba and I left the set and headed for the coolness of the yellow fever trees to await the next setup. We were alone ... together. I stretched out in the forest's thickness. Zamba lay his head across my lap, and I stroked his red-gold mane.
I closed my eyes and savored the moment. How proud I was of both of them — Pam, for trusting and believing in me, and Zamba, for showing the world that affection training works.
We had come a long way.
"CUT! CUT!!" screamed the director. "Good God! Somebody help him!"
Too late! There were two huge, gaping fang holes in my arm, big enough that I could see the studio ceiling arc lights shining through. The pain was excruciating. This lion was BIG — a good 500 pounds. He was hovering inches above me now, one foot on my chest, roaring and snarling in rage.
Helpless, I was lying on the floor of the steel-barred arena, with the hot light pouring down. Amidst the sweat, blood, and terror, I promised myself that if I made it out of this one, I would never work with another animal that had been trained with fear. Outside the arena I could hear people screaming, yelling, rushing everywhere. One man opened the arena door and hurled the director's chair at the lion to try to get him off me. A woman stood at the bars shouting to the lion to let me go.
Why should he? I had teased and humiliated him with a whip and chair, which now lay ten feet away, and he was mad!
Anyway, I was dead, or about to be.
But I didn't want to die and have people say, "Well, he should have died! Just look what he was doing to that lion, using a whip!"
I froze. Those eyes, those huge, amber eyes, had gone blood red.
He bit me again, somewhere. I felt my flesh pop open. Things were vague ... blurred. My brain was numb. Then I couldn't see — there was blood in my eyes! The lion snarled, and I caught a glimpse of a white fang streaked with blood.
I heard the clanking of a steel door and the rattling of the bars. Somebody was coming! I felt an ice-cold blast. A fire extinguisher! The CO2 hit the lion in the face. My rescuer was a very brave man, I thought. Then the great weight of the lion was gone.
Hands were grabbing me, pulling me across the floor. I felt myself being shoved through a door.
Sounds of steel, then of someone yelling, "CLOSE THAT GODDAMN DOOR!!" Someone else shouted, "SOMEBODY! QUICK! QUICK!!"
Slam! Slam! Slam! They were echoes of safety.
"Will everyone please evacuate the arena area!" boomed a voice over the loudspeaker.
A man yelled, "Call an ambulance!!!"
I awoke to the sun's brilliance lighting up my hospital room early the next morning. I felt terrified. I seemed to remember that the doctor had amputated my arm the night before. Frantically, I grabbed for the stump — but no, my arm was still there! Whole, but very painful. I must have dreamt it, a nightmare coming from the pain and anguish of the attack.
It was still very early, and the room was quiet. My mind shot back to that horrible moment when I had felt the lion's hot breath on my cheek. The lion had meant to kill me! The attack epitomized what happens when an animal is fear trained. This lion was distrustful of humans, even vengeful toward them.
Never again, I told myself, my mind fighting against the drugs as I lapsed in and out of consciousness. There had to be a better way to work with animals.
Then sleep overtook me. Suddenly I was a kid, alone in an alley in my old Chicago neighborhood. It was pitch-dark, and deafeningly still. I began to run, tripping on the fractured asphalt that jutted upward. The stench of refuse was everywhere, spilling out from the overturned garbage cans. Rats — some of them as big as cats — were fighting over the garbage. They streaked past in all directions, shrieking and clawing their way across my feet. Then, up ahead, I could see something shimmering — a forest, gleaming like an emerald in the distance. Every agonizing step brought me closer, closer....
Finally, I burst into the center of a clearing. Crystalline beads of dew sparkled on every leaf in the bright sunlight. The meadow was filled with animals — tigers, elephants, lions, goats, horses, and lambs — all lying peacefully beside one another.
Then, as though called by a piper, they began to drift away. I felt devastated and cried out to them, "Don't go! Don't leave me!"
I awoke, bathed in sweat. A nurse was mopping my brow. After she left, I kept thinking about the dream. Ever since early childhood, I wanted to be able to know an animal's world and to let it know mine. True, as a wild-animal trainer, my life did revolve around animals, but the basis of my relationship with them was fear. All the training books, magazines, and films espoused the fear-training method: "Use a whip, a gun, and a chair." "Animals only understand dominance." "Survival of the fittest." "Force the animal to submit." "Put fear in them, to the point of causing physical pain." No wonder the lion tried to kill me!
True, I had learned from the best. But what the "best" had to teach was not what I had wanted. I wasn't interested in domination; I was interested in communication. I realized that fear training went against everything I believed in. I was a lover of nature. My dream said it all: the lion and the lamb.
Could it be possible to work with animals without using fear-training methods? Could an animal be trained with love alone? I doubted it — after all, children raised that way turn out spoiled. No, there had to be more to the training: the love needed to be tempered by understanding. The animal needed to be known so well that its every move could be anticipated and dovetailed with the needs of the trainer.
But such a depth of understanding could hardly be gained overnight. It would take months, years of work. It would require extraordinary, even superhuman, patience. But I didn't care how long it took. If it took forever, it would be worth it to undo centuries of physical abuse.
But would love, understanding, and patience actually be enough? If the lion that had attacked me in the arena had been loved, understood, and treated with patience, he still might have attacked me. What was missing was respect: mine for him, and his for me. Achieving dominance by bullying and causing fear and pain was no way to create a mutually respectful relationship. But to achieve an animal's cooperation through true respect — now that would be an achievement worth devoting one's life to.
A new approach to working with wild animals was slowly taking form in my mind. Dominating the animals physically was out of the question, since they're so much more powerful than we are. I also had to rule out working with them on an intellectual plane, since they're just not on the same level as we are.
But to work with them by using emotions — that was a real possibility. In the realm of emotions, animals and humans share a common ground.
Affection training was born.
After leaving the hospital, I restructured my thinking, and my company. I let go of those trainers whose past experience in training animals had involved fear techniques, and in their place I hired not other trainers, but animal lovers.
How excited we all were! Was it possible? Could it really work? I was determined to find out.CHAPTER 2
I had just come in from the ranch, trailed by a young lion who was attempting to eat my shoes, when the telephone rang.
"Hello. Yeah, this is he. Right, the animal man. Uh-huh. Yes, ma'am he's safe — tame as a dog. Right, next Wednesday. I'll be there. 'Bye, Miss Burke."
As I hung up, Laura, one of our stunt girls, came in.
"That call was from Billie Burke. Remember? She played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz. She was married to Ziegfeld, of Ziegfeld Follies fame. Well, now she's got her own TV program, and she wants me to bring a bear on her next show."
Pulling the lion off my shoes, Laura said, "You told her you had a bear?"
"So where are you going to get a bear?"
"Brian has one."
"You mean the guy who hauls the garbage?"
"Laura, he doesn't haul garbage! He picks up the day-old vegetables from the market to feed his stock! I'll give him a ring."
The next day I was on my way to Brian's ranch. His answer to me had been affirmative. He had one bear, weighing around 300 pounds, that was leash-broken and "semi-tame." As I entered his driveway, I wondered just what semi-tame meant.
Brian was short and stocky, with a mild disposition. His ranch was wall-to-wall garbage: there were piles upon piles of day-old and week-old garbage, dumped out in the open field for the cattle, horses, goats, sheep, lambs, pigs, chickens, ducks, camels, and llamas to pick through.
We walked over to the cage. I approached with caution. Bears are considered to be among the most dangerous animals to train; they are extremely powerful — with a strength factor of eight to one against man — and have volatile tempers. The bear's coat was a shining black, interrupted by a dark-brown patch around his neck. He was short in body, and built like a bulldog — all head, neck, and chest. His claws and fangs were intact. Still, he seemed to have a gentle attitude.
"He came from up north," said Brian, while gnawing on a carrot. "Some old-timer gave him to a friend of mine who was not an animal man, and he beat the shit out of him." I noticed an indentation on the bear's nose.
"That's great news," I said facetiously. "Seriously, what am I supposed to do if he acts up?"
Brian gave me a look of mock surprise. "I thought you were the famous animal trainer who can affection-train anything!" he said, giving me a wink.
"All right, never mind. I have no choice."
"When do you need him?" Brian asked.
"Tomorrow morning — and by the way, can I borrow your truck, too?"
"What's wrong with yours?" he asked.
"Blew a valve. Can't get it fixed until I get the money from the bear job."
"Sorry, ol' buddy, but I've got a market run tomorrow — can't let 'em down! They can't keep old food around, and I don't want to lose my pickup contract."
Upon returning home I made some calls for a vehicle, but to no avail. Finally, I tried Walter, a plump doughboy whose glasses kept sliding down his nose. Old Walt was a good friend, but someone I'd only call as a last resort. He hated animals!
Excerpted from The Beauty of the Beasts by Ralph Helfer. Copyright © 1990 Ralph Helfer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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