Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Zamba (Copy)

Early in Ralph Helfer’s career, a Hollywood studio approached him to offer work as a stuntman. “Sure,” was his automatic reply before they explained the dangerous stunt, “We want you to pretend you are a lion tamer and work a male lion on a pedestal.”

Prior to this proposition, Ralph established himself as a fearless stuntman by handling rattlesnakes and scorpions in earlier productions. Well sort of, he just happens to be the only soul left standing in a room full of unpredictable creatures when a director hollers, “Action!”

The day of the shoot, Ralph meets the trainer. A rough man described as a “Bullderm” chewing, western type: completely messy, uncouth, and unethical with animals. A man preferring to use fear and sheer brute strength to control animals like his lion, Rex.

With a squirt of juice on the ground the trainer asks, “When do these people pay us?”

Ralph, shakes his head uncertain, and then inquires about the lion’s mood. The handler cocks back and says, “Well, okay, I guess.”

The instructions seem easy enough: get Rex to jump on a pedestal, cuff his paw, and snarl at you. (Piece of cake!) The handler then gives Ralph all the hand signals needed and lets him memorize the movements, but without Rex.

Fresh from wardrobe, Ralph ridiculously sports a blue and gold epaulet costume and long leather whip. He then takes his mark, which feels a little too close to the pedestal, and the director bellows, “Action!” With the gate open, Rex saunters into the cage, barely acknowledging Ralph and sits on his haunches.

Ralph has to snap the whip to rouse him, and then proceeds to do hand signals. Rex reluctantly “acts” the scene through and the director hollers, “Cut!”

“That was great, son. Let’s do it again.”

The next take, sends Ralph to the emergency room, unconscious and broken. From that horrible encounter, Ralph vows to learn a better way to treat animals, using respect and love. He coins his new technique “affection training” and smothers his animals with praises when they do well.

He gets another chance when Zamba, a lion cub abandoned near the Zambezi River, enters his life. You will laugh and cry reading, Zamba: the True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer. It is full of narrow escapes and surprises, as Ralph evolves into the “Lion Whisperer.”