Books Paranormal and Carnivale Reading Themes

Nonfiction Monday: A Different Kind of Love in Ralph Helfer’s Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

Fats here.

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. It is with pleasure that we bring you stories and verses that tickle the heart. We begin this week with a story that is perfect for both the season of hearts and our beloved weekly meme, Nonfiction Monday. Today’s edition of Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Wrapped in Foil.

Poster courtesy of our treasured Iphigene

When Ralph Helfer’s Modoc appeared in the search results for our bimonthly theme, I did not know what to expect. With at least ten other books I borrowed from the library, and 320 pages of Modoc ahead of me, I was afraid that I would not be able to feature it in time of our bimonthly theme. In fact, Modoc was not the original book I had in mind for today’s Nonfiction Monday.

However, books have a certain way of presenting themselves to you. The idea came to me when Myra and I were discussing our V-Day special for Gathering Books. When I saw the subtitle, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, I knew. I had to have it featured for Nonfiction Monday.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

A Kindred Spirit in the Form of a Pachyderm. More often than not, we associate love with romantic love. We paint a picture of a man and a woman in a relationship, entwined in each other’s arms, entangled in each other’s dreams and desires. Seldom do we think about other forms of love, those that transcend romanticism. The love between Bram and Modoc is an example of such.

Josef Gunterstein, a humble elephant trainer, wished for a boy and a girl. His wish came true when his wife Katrina gave birth to a healthy boy who they named Bram. Coincidentally, Josef’s most beloved elephant Emma gave birth to a girl elephant that Josef named – yup – Modoc, after the famous Indian elephant that became known as the greatest elephant that ever lived.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Ralph Helfer’s description of the births of Bram and Modoc sent chills down my spine. It was so beautiful, so “one-with-nature” that the story was hard to believe. It was a foreshadowing of the spiritual bond that would tie Bram and Modoc, as they grew older.

One of the most powerful parts in the book can be found in Chapter 3. It was a heartfelt description of how the said spiritual bond between man and animal was ignited.

Katrina held Bram in her arms, speaking softly, reassuringly, as they approached baby Modoc.

This was an important moment, a beginning, for she knew the boy would spend his life with animals, especially elephants, and the meeting was of utmost importance. Neither the elephant nor the baby said a word. All was quiet as they looked at each other. Mo’s small trunk wormed its way up, reaching to the baby. As Bram leaned over, his little hand pulled loose from Katrina’s grasp found its way down toward the trunk. A finger extended to meet the tip of the trunk. Bram’s expression was one of curiosity; he felt the wet tip, Modoc moved her “finger” all around Bram’s hand, sliding it across each finger and the palm. A big tickle grin spread across Bram’s face, Modoc did her elephant “chirp,” a tear glistened as it ran down Katrina’s face. All was well. The future had been written. (p. 16)

A Deeper Understanding of Nature Exceeds the Unnecessary Use of Force. Bram was born to an elephant handler and he lived among circus people. It was inevitable then that he would be taught how to become a master handler himself. The story of Modoc provides a glimpse of the circus life and paints two opposing portraits of animal handling – one fueled by love and kindness, the other by fear and cruelty. Both methods have the same results, but only the former brings about a positive and more harmonious relationship between the trainer and the animal.

In one of Bram and Modoc’s journeys, a Hindu named Jagrat spoke of Bram’s ability to speak the language of the pachyderm:

“When man chooses to develop his innate power of communication with nature and therefore hear the voice, all will be right with the world – we will be as one. What you have been able to do with your Modoc is what man has been seeking for a long time. To communicate with nature through animals.” (p. 143)

More Than Just An Animal Story. I am not an avid reader of biographies that feature animals. The only other animal biography I have in my shelf is Marley & Me, and I have not even touched it yet. On the surface, one may dismiss Modoc simply as another animal story that speaks about life, love, and loss.

Jacobs Elephants: Modoc, Empress, and Judy. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

What makes Modoc special to me is the fact that it tells the story of an elephant. Friendship with a nine-thousand-pound animal is most certainly a big leap from that of domesticated animals like cats and dogs. Elephants are willful creatures and, although they are trained to help with domestic chores or perform in a circus, they are still considered ‘wild.’ Truly, the story of Modoc is one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read.

My favorite Hollywood diva, Betty White, could not have said it any better:

“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.” (Found on the back cover of the book.)

About the Author. Ralph Helfer is a well-known Hollywood animal behaviorist and author of The Beauty of the Beasts. He is widely respected as the founder of “Affection Training,” and his elephants, apes, lions, tigers, and bears have appeared in countless TV and movie productions. Helfer also spends time in Africa, where he hosts safaris and continues to write. (Taken from the back flap of the book.)

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived
By Ralph Helfer
Reading Level: Ages 12 and up
Hardbound: 325 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins (1997)
Book borrowed from the Chula Vista Public Library

Fats is the Assistant Manager for Circulation Services at the Wayne County Public Library in Wooster, Ohio. She considers herself a reader of all sorts, although she needs to work on her non-fiction reading. Fats likes a good mystery but is not too fond of thrillers. She takes book hoarding seriously and enjoys collecting bookmarks and tote bags. When she is not reading, Fats likes to shop pet apparel for her cat Penny (who absolutely loathes it).

11 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: A Different Kind of Love in Ralph Helfer’s Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

  1. I’m not sure I will ever get to it, but my brother is such an animal lover that I might get this book for him. It sounds like a wonderful story. There is talk about eliminating elephants from circuses altogether so it will be interesting to read about the life of this one. Thanks for sharing about it, Fats, and all the photos too.


    • Hi Linda! Your brother would love this book. The incredible friendship between Bram and Modoc and the odds they’ve overcome are so inspirational and heartfelt that one should not miss out on. I did read something about that while I was browsing through resources I could use for this review. It wasn’t an entire article but it did mention the plan of eliminating elephants from the circus. =)


  2. “Modoc” was such an important book in my oldests’ life – it was our breakthrough-into-BIG- books book. After that, we moved onto “To Kill A Mockingbird” and books that really required deep thinking. I still have my battered copy with our notes – although it is not a book I really feel I can share with my sixth graders. Thanks for bringing back such great memories, Myra! And for your fantastic post!


    • Hi Tara! Thanks for dropping by. Glad to know how significant Modoc was in your eldest’s reading life. Sadly, I have not read To Kill A Mockingbird. I’ve seen the movie A Time to Kill and liked it, so I’d agree with my friends who’ve read the book that it’s a beautiful piece of literature.


  3. This sounds like a fascinating story. Thanks for the recommendation.
    Apples with Many Seeds


  4. I love elephants, so your review caught my eye. The story of Modoc was very interesting. They are so intelligent. Must check this one out. Read a children’s non-fiction book called “The Elephant Scientist,” and I think it might be something you’d like. I didn’t realize that that elephants communicate far distances through the low vibrations in their feet — that’s how they know where to find water, food, and retreat from harm. A group of my friends went to an elephant refuge in Asia, where there were psychologically damaged animals. They began chanting every day to the elephants, and the animals began to respond to them over two weeks. Each one had a friend. The refuge was so amazed that they invite them back annually. After I read the elephant scientist, the idea of chanting being like a vibration helped me understand why they responded. Sorry, didn’t mean to write a book. Must look for this book.


  5. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature: A February Round-Up and More «

  6. Pingback: List of Circus, Carnivale, Paranormal Themed Books for All Ages «

  7. It’s a real let down, but this story of Modoc is actually mostly made up and loosely based on a compilation of stories from three different circus elephants with the name “Modoc.” Some of the many things that don’t add up are that there is no documentation of a Bram Gunterstein having ever come to America around this time, there is no German town called Hasengrossck, and the steamer ship sinking and subsequent miraculous rescue has no verifiable documentation.

    See also:


    • Fats Suela

      Indeed, it is. Thank you for this valuable information, and for bringing to everyone’s attention the inconsistencies in the book.


  8. I’m here to tell you all – if you haven’t read it, you MUST!! I just finished it and it so well written and filled with everything from humor to sadness, tragedy, hope and above all LOVE. Take the time to read it. You won’t regret it, I promise you!


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