elephant tales: Modoc by Ralph Helfer

March 14, 2010

The first in the series of Elephant books I have been reading was “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer. The story describes the friendship and adventures between a young boy, Bram, and an elephant named Modoc. The two are born on the same day and grow up together forming a close and loyal friendship, Bram’s father is the elephant trainer for the circus in Germany. As the circus is sold to an American owner, and Bram, faced with being separated from his best friend, stows on the boat. A storm hits them near the coast of India, they are shipwrecked and so begins their adventures through India, where they face bandits, revolutionaries, cruel animal trainers

It was a book that, above all, made me think. Having formed strong opinions on circuses, elephants logging and especially the use of the bullhook on elephants, this book was challenging me from a series of different angles. It makes a strong case for the difference between good training and abusive training. Bram’s father describes the bullhook “This is a guide – a liaison between you and your charge, to express your desires to the elephant” . Later when Bram is confronted with other elephant circus trainers, he says: “But no good elephant trainer needs to put holes in his elephant. The bull hook is used to teach, not abuse.”
Though I believe all elephants should live as elephants, without human interference; I know that in many cases it is too late for that, the elephants domesticated and in zoos and circuses cannot be released to the wild and that there are grey areas that need to be defined.

However I found myself strongly disagreeing on some points. In particular this paragraph: “That night Bram lay in bed thinking of what it must be like to live in the forest, working with the other trainers, having the elephants hauling and pushing those great logs. In many ways he felt better about it than training elephants to perform for the public which sometimes seemed disrespectful to the elephants, having them sit up and roll over like a well-trained pet. Yet he knew that that kind of thinking came from people who were judgmental of others. In the animal doesn’t know what it is doing is foolish, then only the person who thinks it is suffers those feelings. As long as the animal enjoys what it’s doing, and is not forced into something it doesn’t want to do, then it’s okay.” I have so much trouble understanding humanity’s need to see animals doing tricks rather than just appreciating them for the fascinating beings they are. Although I am trying to see all sides from the story, this accusation of being judgmental felt personal to me.

This book is portrayed as a true story, something I found increasingly hard to believe as I continued to turn the pages and my internet searches have not been able to bring forth any facts. The photos in the book only capture the last years of Modoc’s life as she becomes a famous circus performer.

True story or not, it’s a good, easy read, filled with adventures and much love for the elephants. The friendship between Bram and Modoc is the core of this book and rings true for all those who have met an elephant and seen their magnificence.

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One Response to “elephant tales: Modoc by Ralph Helfer”

  1. Rhonda Says:

    I just finished reading Modoc, and loved it. However, I don’t see why there were not more pictures of her. I also don’t understand while throughout the book it mentions her ‘tusks’, she has no tusks in any of the pictures… Why is that? What happened to Gertie after Bram’s death?


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