Book review: ‘Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived,’ by Ralph Helfer |

Book review: ‘Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived,’ by Ralph Helfer

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
"Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived," by Ralph Helfer.
Special to the Daily |

Friendships come in many combinations, and unlikely ones within the animal kingdom never cease to astound, with dogs making friends with owls and cats cozying up with mice. Humans, too, can cultivate friendships with fellow members of the vast species pool, and throughout history, some unforgettable stories have emerged.

“Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” is one such example, and it is a story that is both deeply touching and achingly heartbreaking. Author Ralph Helfer writes with painter-quality colors, bringing to life the beautiful, lifelong friendship between a young German boy and an unforgettable elephant.

The story opens with the charming convergence of two babies being born at the same time on the Gunterstein family farm in the heart of the Black Forest, where circus elephants are lovingly raised and trained with deeply attentive care. From very nearly his first breath, Bram, the head trainer’s newborn son, connects with the new baby elephant, Modoc, and the feeling is clearly mutual.

The motley little circus troupe is a family, with a team of committed trainers, its side show of misfits and, at the heart of it, Bram, who follows in his father’s footsteps of learning to train the elephants of the Wunderzirkus, where all the animals are taught their routines through patience and nurturing. Violence and fear-based training were not permitted, and subsequently, the animals and humans share a rare and unique bond.

No one has as special a connection as Bram and Modoc, who are inseparable, playing together from an early age and even feeding each other their baby bottles. As the two grow up, the connection only deepens, and an unspoken communication emerges. There are many moments when the thread that binds them is pulled at and frayed by external forces, but Helfer expertly portrays how their loving bond overcomes astounding hurdles.

And those hurdles are immense, some of them nearly apocalyptic. The climax of the narrative comes when Helfer describes the sad circumstances that force the circus to disband. Bram, in his desperation not to be separated from his elephant, finds himself stowing away on the ship that is carrying Modoc and the other animals to their new owner in America. As though serving as a real life template for “Life of Pi,” the ship wrecks, and soon Bram and Modoc are fighting for survival on the wild seas of the Indian Ocean.

Modoc’s clear love for the boy who has raised her becomes most evident in these tense pages, and Helfer deftly pulls the reader in for the intense moments of the shipwreck and the increasingly astounding series of events that follow. Forever at the center of the action is the love story between these two souls, who refuse to give up on each other, no matter the odds.

The writing is so tender and thoughtful, indicative of Helfer’s own deep love for animals, that the reader can’t help but lament at every moment Bram and Modoc are separated. Helfer narrates his story from a firsthand experience with both Bram and Modoc and indeed from the world of elephants, in general, for it is in this capacity that he encountered the pair late in their illustrious lives.

“Modoc” is a story that will linger in the mind, a heartwarming reminder that the world is filled with extraordinary creatures, many with a deep capacity for emotion and intelligence. Elephants have long been acknowledged as some of the most remarkable animals, and Helfer’s account certainly reinforces that notion. The story is an unforgettable read for anyone who loves the natural world and the points at which humans are lucky enough to intersect with the many unique beings that share this planet with us.

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