Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer


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Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer

Spanning several decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives, and would be tested time and again; through a near-fatal shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, an apprenticeship with the legendary Mahout elephant trainers in the Indian teak forests, and their eventual rise to circus stardom in 1940s New York City.

Modoc is a captivating true story of loyalty, friendship, and high adventure, to be treasured by animal lovers everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060929510
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/26/1998
Series: Harper Perennial
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 79,659
Product dimensions: 7.96(w) x 10.88(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

On a gray, foggy morning they came, rising on the cold north winds from the icy peaks, sweeping across the timberland into the gray, misty valleys of the Black Forest . . . baby sounds! Somewhere below the fog layer, the insistent wails of a baby could be heard, their temerity as if from Mother Earth herself.
And then another voice arose. Deeper, brassy, trumpety, but still a . . . baby sound. It, too, was whisked away through the thermals, swirling and dashing about until it met its kin. A quiet moment hung over all. Then, together, they joined—the wailing and trumpeting became one. They drifted over the countryside, beyond the river, across the corn rows and the desolate fields of last summer's picking.
The first sunlight of the morning bathed the chilly Hagendorf Valley with its burnt ochre sphere. It seemed to rest, but for a moment, at the foot of Olymstroem Mountain upon a rather small but quaint old German farm. It was from there both baby sounds emanated.
A rutted dirt road snaked up the center of the farm, separating the pale yellow German-Swiss style two-story house from the large, old, rock and timber barn. The barn's rock supports had tumbled down at every corner, resembling small volcanoes with boulders spewed in all directions. The rotting wood structure seemed to be part of the earth itself, and spoke bluntly of the many years of winter storms it had survived.
Circus paraphernalia lay everywhere. A huge old wooden circus wagon, its hitch buried deep, wheels dug into the mud from years before, showed chips of red and gold paint still visible on its frame. Pieces of candy-striped tent hung over the barn's windows. A broken ticket booth lay inshambles, its general admission sign still hanging from the roof. Chickens, geese, a few pigs ran free around the dwellings. This was the Gunterstein farm.
The baby sounds had separated. From the second-story window of the house only the soft crying of an infant could be heard. Hannah, the midwife, an exceedingly large and buxom woman, finished powdering the infant's behind. After bundling him in a soft, warm blue blanket, she handed the baby boy to his mother. Katrina Gunterstein gently took her firstborn. A pretty woman in her early forties, the daughter of a dirt farmer, Katrina had a wide strong jaw and a high forehead that spoke well of her inherited German peasant stock. Kissing his bright pink cheeks, she opened her nightgown and offered the baby her full breast. The touch of the infant's tiny mouth on her nipple sent a ripple of pure ecstasy through her body.
"Oh, Josef! This is a boy to be proud of. Is he not wonderful?" She looked through tears of joy at her husband, who stood at her bedside.
Josef was the epitome of a proud father gazing down at his infant son. His slender body and chiseled high cheekbones made him appear much taller than his six-foot frame. Katrina had found the man of her dreams in Josef, a quiet, gentle man of the Jewish faith. After many failed attempts during their ten years of marriage, they were now blessed with a marvelous boy child. Although his blond hair and features came from the strong Nordic side of Katrina's family, he had the sweet and gentle warmth that radiated so strongly from Josef's heritage. They named him Bram, after Josef's father.
"The boy's going to make a fine elephant trainer," said Josef, his eyes full of anticipation.
Josef, as his father years before him, worked for a small village circus in the nearby town of Hasengrossck. He was a trainer, a trainer of animals. More precisely, Josef was a trainer of elephants. At times Katrina thought he loved the elephants more than he loved her, but better it be animals, she thought with a smile, than another woman. Besides, this love for animals was what made him the wonderful, caring man he was.
An ear-splitting trumpet shocked them out of their bliss. Realizing there was another baby to celebrate, Josef kissed his wife, the infant, and, in his excitement, even Hannah, and dashed downstairs, embarrassed at the mistake he had just made.
He felt a chill in the air as he stepped out on the porch. As morning broke, the earth's shadows eased their way down the mountains. Winter had worn out its welcome and spring was pushing the flowers up in the meadows. By the look of things it was going to be a wonderful day. Josef hugged himself briskly to keep out the cold and headed for the barn. Swinging open the large, creaky barn door, he stepped inside.
The scent of alfalfa, oat hay, and saddle soap, and the pungent odor of elephant stool in the damp musty air greeted Josef's nostrils. Bale upon bale of hay was neatly stacked against one side of the wall and formed large rectangular steps leading to the very top of the barn. From there one could touch the huge rafters that held the old structure together. On the opposite side of the barn were animal stalls, tack, and feed rooms. Inside the spacious tack room, the leather horse saddles, bridles, and halters had been buffed and polished to a high sheen. The brass buckles, D-rings, and cinches all sparkled, each piece having its appropriate place.
Hanging in an area of their own were huge elephant cinches and girth straps. A large elephant headpiece straddled a wire-and-cloth dummy elephant head. Heavy chains, clevises, a large coil of rope, and various elephant hooks and shackles were neatly laid out on rough-cut wooden shelves. Adjoining stalls housed the farm horses, goats, pigs, and milk cows.
Silhouetted in the rays of the early morning sunlight filtering through the large open doors at the rear of the barn was a giant living form. Vapors rose from the monolithic body, spiraling up to the single hooded lamp hanging from a rafter high above in a feeble attempt to light the area below. The form had a strange resemblance to the locomotives hissing and steaming in the darkened train barn at Frankfurt station, waiting to be hitched to a long line of boxcars.

What People are Saying About This

Betty White

"Once I started this incomparable story, I couldn't put it down, and I cannot get it out of my mind--nor will I ever. Were Modoc a work of fiction it would still be a wonderful read, but the fact that it is based on a true story makes it absolutely irresistible. The message of what can be accomplished by training through affection and joy will thrill all animal lovers, and will, hopefully, bring new insight to others as well."

Customer Reviews

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Modoc 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 111 reviews.
Blitzismydog More than 1 year ago
The premise of this book--that the elephant and baby are born the same day many years ago and grow up together--is fascinating and endearing, and you really want to go along on this ride. It's a great theme for a book, compelling and terrific... but falls apart. There's no documentation for the "true" tale, no quoted witnesses, no photos of the trainer Bram, and nothing to support the entire story. Helfer does not even claim that it was told to him by "Bram," so we don't actually know how it came to be. The plot points are all hit by other reviewers--idyllic youth in Germany, elephant purchased by evil big-deal American circus owner, trainer who can't separate from the animal he has never owned, etc. While I love the story and all the details about the shipwreck, the Elephantarium in India, the maharajah/white elephant, etc., the truth eventually becomes apparent--this story cannot possibly BE true. And so it should not be hyped as such on the subtitle/cover. The writing is over the top and sentimental. The book is organized purely by chronology, although exact years, references to the War, Depression, etc, are missing. There's nothing wrong with it if that's what you like, but this is labelled non-fiction; this type of book is generally not so emotional. It reminds me of a Victorian-style novel in that it deals in the emotional plane nearly all the way through. So perhaps it's one person's version of a compiled "truth." It would be easier to accept if it were labelled as a compilation of many of the best circus-elephant stories out there... which would probably be a GREAT idea for a book! With pictures, interviews, illustrations, descriptions and news excerpts. Like real non-fiction! Also interesting that nowhere on the internet can I find an interview of Helfer about this book. It was fairly well received when it came out and has sold well over the years... so why doesn't he come out and tell fans/readers what the truth of the book might be? There are a lot of over-emotional animal lovers out there who would love to hear more... I myself have hunted in vain for more info on Modoc and/or Bram, but there's little to be found. Modoc was the name of several circus elephants, adding to the puzzle. So... it's a great story, but don't be fooled into thinking it's all true. It's written in a very emotional, opinionated way. I think animal lovers would like it regardless.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Modoc is a great book, obviously one in which had been written with great care. It seems as if it would be a noval of fiction rather than one of nonfiction, with all of the adventures and dangers in which Modoc and Bram face. It is a truly grand tale, one in which the reader should thoroughly enjoy and use an open heart with. The bond between animal and person is very vividly shown, along with how truly evil the human race can be towards animals, whom have done nothing wrong. A very good book,for animal lovers of all kinds!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book made me want to support the elephant charties. I love this book. Best story ever.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Is this REALLY a true story? I had such high expectations when I read the cover. But I don't even think the pictures are real. Modoc is described numerous times as having tusks, yet the elephant in the pictures does not have tusks (and it may be several different elephants if you look closely). And that fire picture is from the Hartford Circus fire of 1944 (Look it up on Google). I have searched for any other existing story or information on Modoc or Bram Gunterstein and the only thing I ever get a hit on is this book. I understand that some 'poetic license' must be taken when writing a historical account, but if you are writing a novel, just say you are writing a novel, don't try to pass it off as a true story. I was extremely disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont read very often and i am a slow reader as well but not for Modoc. I LOVE elephants so this story just made my love for them even greater. This story is filled with so much love and compassion it is truly a greatstory and has become my favorite book. I would recommend t o to anyone and everyone!
tahoecarolmc More than 1 year ago
"Modoc" was selected by our book club for our March read. Everyone loved it. The bond between Bram and Modoc was so very touching. Everything they went through all those years tugged at your heart. I cried at the end, which I seldom do. Very highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read an average of 10 books a month. This book will be among my top five all time favorites. So well written and certainly not a book you can easily put down. Read it for yourself and most of all enjoy!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am an avid reader. I read an average of 8 or more books a month ranging in all genres. Having said that this is one of the top three books i have ever read. Words can't relay how this book will stay in my memory, it's just that wonderful. Ralph Helfer deserves a standing ovation with this one-Bravo!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It has been a while since I read this book, but it has left a lasting impression on me. It tells a heart-warming tale about a man and his beloved elephant companion, while also reminding us of the old adage "An elephant never forgets." and that all animals should be treated with love and respect. This book made me laugh, cry and everything in between. An amazing read.
Smila More than 1 year ago
Very well told and makes you want to read more. The adventures keep going and going from page to page. Hard to believe it's true, so many things in one lifetime.
Xanthe More than 1 year ago
I found this basically unreadable. An intriguing story perhaps, but the writing is just not compelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best animal books I have ever read, and will one of my favorite books read ever. The story is compelling right from the start, and commands your attention throughout.It exposes the best and some of the worst behavior in the human character, and makes us realize, who are the real humans in this world, people or animals? It held my attention throughout, and I had a hard time putting it down. Pay no attention to the nay sayers or doubters, as they probably would not believe this story no matter how much documentation was provided. Do yourself a favor, and buy this book, ;Im positive you will treasure it forever! Bravo to Ralph Heifer on such a superb book! I give you warm applause & a tip of the hat! Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful & heartwarming story!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful wonderful book , could not put it down - only to get more kleenex !
bobalu99 More than 1 year ago
i love this book! a must read for animal lovers! i don't know if it's true or not, and frankly, i don't care. i like to believe that it's true because it makes me smile thinking that someone as awesome and amazing as Modoc walked the same planet as i do. =)
dulcibelle on LibraryThing 11 hours ago
Helfer is the owner/operator of Africa, USA - the Hollywood company that supplied many of the animals for movies and TV shows; most notably Clarance the Cross-Eyed Lion and Judy the Chimp from Daktari (a series from the '60's). Modoc is the first elephant he had in his stable. Helfer met Modoc when she was already in her 30's. He later met (and worked with) Modoc's original handler (Bram Gunterstein) who told him Modoc's story. And what a story it is!! Modoc and Bram were born on the same day in a little German circus. They were shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, adopted by an Indian maharajah, employed in the teak jungles, hijacked by rebels, brought to the US as star circus performers, separated by a cruel twist of fate, and later reunited by Helfer. It's animal adventure in the tradition of [Lassie, Come Home] or [Lad, A Dog] - and it's all true.
bblum on LibraryThing 11 hours ago
A great read; it was an unexpected adventure story that started in Germany, with survival adventures in India, and a circus nemesis named Mr. North in the USA. Fast moving and engaging and despite Modoc being trained for the circus this is not a circus story. Main characters are Bram, the boy who grows up with Modoc and becomes his trainer and friend, Gertie, the girlfriend and Mr.North the evil circus owner who buys Modoc but hates Bram because he is a Jew. The story startes in the 1930's in Germany, moves to India due to a storm that sinks the ship carrying the circus to the US and eventually to the USA over 70 years. Each chapter is very exciting with adventures of survival and bravery. There is real devotion between Bram and Modoc.
caymil on LibraryThing 11 hours ago
I actually had this book for some time before I started reading it, because I wasn't really sure if I would enjoy it. I ended up enjoying it very much and will likely hold on to it to read a second time. That is high praise coming from me because I rarely read the same book twice. This is an incredible story of adventure, friendship, and love. It is essential reading if you are an animal lover and highly recommended if you are not.
corgidog2 on LibraryThing 5 days ago
A touching story of an elephant and her mahout of seventy eight years, the elephant's whole life.
AZLibba More than 1 year ago
A very memorable read, book club worthy and a nice gift. It was an unexpectable delight, from beginning to end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A warm and love-filled story of an elephant who was cared for and trained in a most caring fashion. An amazing life for Modok who traveled from Germany to India to the U.S. Adventures and heat-rending experiences abound.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this book is an inspirational must read! a beautiful story true or not.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book over a dozen times since it was first written and yet I cry every single time. And each time I still wish I had never read it so it could be my first time reading it over and over again. I love this book and I can truely say it is my favorite book I've ever read. Please please read this book if you have a chance. Modoc and Bram will teach you more about love, loyalty, and freindship than any other story you could ever read.
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