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Zamba: The Greatest Lion That Ever Lived

Zamba: The Greatest Lion That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer

One day, Ralph Helfer, a celebrated animal behaviorist, received a surprising phone call. His close friends had found a young lion near death by the Zambezi River in Zambia and had rescued him and brought him back to the States. Ralph had often spoken of wanting to raise a lion from a young age — he had been developing a philosophy of training animals


One day, Ralph Helfer, a celebrated animal behaviorist, received a surprising phone call. His close friends had found a young lion near death by the Zambezi River in Zambia and had rescued him and brought him back to the States. Ralph had often spoken of wanting to raise a lion from a young age — he had been developing a philosophy of training animals based on love instead of fear, which he termed "affection training." Weeks later, Zamba, then a two-month-old cub, arrived. As Helfer peeked into Zamba's box, he saw a small lion cub tilt his head, wait a single beat, then amble right into his arms. Hugging Helfer's neck with his soft paws, Zamba collapsed on his chest, got comfortable, and fell asleep, their faces touching. They didn't move for the next two hours. Zamba was home.

For the next eighteen years, Zamba would appear in many motion pictures, on television, and in the pages of magazines. Along with Helfer's other famous animal actors — including Modoc the circus elephant and Gentle Ben the bear — Zamba proved Helfer's theories resoundingly correct, and affection training revolutionized the way animals are trained and treated in the motion picture industry. Through both happy and tough times the bond between Helfer and Zamba developed into the most important of their lives, and Zamba is now enshrined in Helfer's heart and the memories of moviegoers everywhere as the greatest lion that ever lived. With stories that range from the hilarious to the incredibly sad and poignant, Zamba will give any Lion King fan a new hero and touch every animal lover's heart.

Editorial Reviews

“Wonderful, detailed… amusing… Zamba is a charming read.”
“A warmhearted tale of love between two species.”
Publishers Weekly
Legendary Hollywood animal trainer and behaviorist Helfer captures an incredible story of love between man and lion that displays all the qualities that made his previous book, Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, so moving. Here Helfer is involved with the subject, which adds emotional depth to a lifelong adventure. Starting with his somewhat brutal childhood on Chicago's South Side, the author deftly develops his story of the spiritual harmony he finds in nature and the violence he sees in the film industry's use of animals. His unique bond with a lion cub he names Zamba grows into a lifetime relationship that includes countless guest stints in movies and television shows, and leads to Helfer's development of a system of animal training "based on love, not fear," called "affection training." It "has revolutionized the way animals are trained and treated in the motion picture industry." The heart of the book is an account of Helfer's trip to Africa to assist Zamba with a starring role in The Lion, where the author's bond with his lion becomes a true spiritual connection that will touch the heart of any animal lover. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Richard Curtis. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Following the success of his last book, Modoc, about "the greatest elephant that ever lived," animal trainer Helfer now recounts the story of his life with Zamba, "the greatest lion that ever lived." In the late 1950s, Helfer's dream of owning a lion came true when he acquired a cub. The daunting task of raising Zamba allowed Helfer to put into practice his "affection method,"which he was developing for use in a growing movie animal business. Helfer became one of the top trainers in Hollywood, owing much of his success to Zamba's remarkable ability to work closely with actors in difficult situations. Despite his saccharine writing style and unrealistic, flowery dialog, Helfer makes the narrative enjoyable with tales of Zamba riding in a car down the streets of Hollywood with his head and shoulders sticking out of the sun roof and of an assistant who tried to discipline a wild lion in Africa, mistaking it for Zamba. Purchase where animal stories are popular.-Ann Forister, Roseville P.L., CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-From a young age, Helfer had a way with animals and an urge to work with them. After an inauspicious start as a teen helper in a Los Angeles pet store, he gradually acquired animals that movie studios used in their productions. He was the first Hollywood animal trainer to use affection rather than fear. He showed that his method worked better, and now, of course, it has become commonly accepted. He even turned an orphaned lion cub into a vegetarian for a brief period, to test a theory. Over the years, Zamba appeared in many movies and television commercials and shows, riding to jobs in the back of Helfer's station wagon, uncaged. The author reminds readers that wild animals are never thoroughly predictable and are not house pets; even Zamba surprised him occasionally, although never in a dangerous way. The special bond between these two mammals; Helfer's ideas about animal-human communication and understanding; and the many stories, both humorous and touching, make this a fascinating book.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An object lesson in living peacefully with animals, even a lion. Fifty years ago, Helfer (Modoc, 1997) was a revolutionary: a trainer who relied on trust and respect, not the standard fear training. He developed a positive relationship with his animal companions through what he calls "affection training," encouraging in his charges the patience and understanding to deal with humans. Helfer got a chance to test his theory when some friends brought an orphaned African lion cub named Zamba to his Santa Monica ranch. His fellow trainers called him a fool. The lion would turn on him, they warned, as soon as he was old enough to consider Helfer dinner rather than benefactor. It never happened. Helfer and Zamba went on to become motion picture and television legends. During their 18 years together, they had many adventures, from designing a bed big enough for the two of them (the lion was a bed hog) to a bit of dentistry, which quickly reminded Helfer that Zamba was still an animal, more than willing to remove a finger if it got in his mouth while an abscess was being extricated. A 1960 shoot in Africa for a movie called The Lion commands the second half of the text. The days were long enough to make Zamba cranky, and there were snakes in the garden as well. At one point, Zamba was kidnapped, only to be abandoned when the kidnappers realized their charge wasn't exactly docile. With so much attention lavished on this extraordinary lion, it comes as a shock to learn that Helfer's farm is home to more than 1,500 animals, all of which get the same kind of care as Zamba. The last pages describe a horrific flood at the ranch that could have erased all of Helfer's good works. Beautifully expresses asimple philosophy so many have trouble following: respect for all living creatures, given and returned.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt


The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived
By Ralph Helfer

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Ralph Helfer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060761326

Chapter One

I have spent my life living and working peacefully with animals. But one of my most formative learning experiences was an incident that ended with me in the hospital.

I was in my late teens. I was doing stunts and assisting other trainers with their animals, and I was offered a job as a stuntman for a Hollywood studio. They asked that I work an adult male lion on a pedestal, just as is done in the circus. They wanted him to snarl and swipe at me a few times.

I told them I'd be happy to, but for one problem: I had no lion. I said thanks anyhow and hung up.

Later that day the studio called again. They said that they'd found a lion. The man who owned him would be out of town for the day of the shoot, but he knew of me and felt I could do the stunt. He said that the lion, who was called Rex, was old and would respond to certain basic commands. The handler who'd be bringing Rex to the shoot could tell me everything I needed to know.

I could hardly contain my excitement. I had been obsessed with lions since childhood, and I held them in the highest esteem, more than any other creature. To me they represented the best that nature had to offer. Their regal attitude, proud stance, strength, and dignity always made me feel I was in the presence of royalty, and I felt a real spiritual connection to them -- I felt called to work with them.

I have always been convinced that very real communication between humans and animals is possible, and I was sure that working with a lion was my own key to that interaction. But at that time in my career I hadn't yet set foot in an arena with any animal, let alone with a lion. And this job wasn't the way I had imagined my first solo interaction with a lion would be. I knew that this animal had been "fear trained," and working with an animal that had been tamed with cruelty and violence went against all my principles. I also realized that it had the potential to be very, very dangerous.

In spite of my reservations, the studio made it hard to refuse the job. They said I was just the right size, and they offered me a good deal of money. Times were rough. I had acquired a number of small animals -- raccoons, opossums, kinkajous, a red-tailed hawk, and a small mountain lion -- and my expenses had escalated. I reasoned with my conscience: after all, I hadn't had anything to do with the lion's training, and I certainly wouldn't be hurting him. In fact, it could be the other way around. I accepted.

The hard part was telling my girlfriend.

"Ralph, you're an idiot! This is an incredibly stupid thing to do. You don't know the lion, and he's never met you. You can't get instructions from some guy five minutes before you go into the ring to work a lion."

"The trainer said it won't be a problem, and I really need the money."

"We don't need it that badly. You're going to get yourself killed."

Sweet, athletic Laura had helped me build my small collection of animals. We argued for hours, until she finally gave up on me.

"Go ahead -- kill yourself. Enjoy your short career."

In my heart, I knew she was right. But I needed the money, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Although I didn't agree with the methods of trainers who used fear, I had seen what they did and how they did it, and I felt I could mimic their commands. I didn't need to abuse the animal -- I was just going to be following the directions I was given, issuing commands that the owner had trained the lion to respond to years before. The handler who accompanied the lion would tell me what to do and how to do it, and I'd be home by lunch.

On the day of the shoot, when I arrived at the studio I noticed a pickup truck and trailer parked near the entrance to the big soundstage. Actually, it wasn't the pickup I noticed so much as the enormous African lion pacing in a large portable cage nearby, jaws dripping with saliva. A man dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans, a striped Western shirt, cowboy boots, and a broad-brimmed hat stood near the cage. The telltale string coming out of his shirt pocket meant he was carrying a small bag of "Bullderm" chewing tobacco.

I introduced myself and asked how the lion was feeling. The handler cocked his hat back on his balding head and said, "Well, okay, I guess."

"You guess?" I questioned.

"Well, yeah, a bit restless, but ... "He hesitated. "He's okay."

A squirt of tobacco juice landed on the ground near me. "When do these people pay us?" he asked.

I'd seen this type of guy hanging around the barns at some of the animal compounds. He was a mess of uncouth habits and flaunted his couldn't-care-less attitude.

"I think they'll pay by check in about a week," I said.

Another stream of spit hit the dirt.

I saw the situation for what it was. This fellow needed money, and he'd let me work the lion -- even if it was unsafe -- just to get it. I felt a strange sensation in my stomach. But I didn't back out. In the next two minutes he told me all that he knew about Rex, which was how to get him to sit on the pedestal, cuff at me with his paw, and snarl.

"That's it," he said.

"That's it?"

"That's it -- no big deal."

"Has he ever been handled?"

"You mean touched?"

I nodded yes.

"Are you crazy? He'd kill you!"

My opinion of this guy sank even lower -- and my nerves weren't improving ...


Excerpted from Zamba by Ralph Helfer Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Helfer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ralph Helfer is a well-known Hollywood animal trainer who was one of the first to use affection and kindness to train wild animals. He is the author of The Beauty of the Beasts, and he lives in Los Angeles and Kenya, where he leads safari tours.

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