HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Zamba: The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived
Author: Ralph Helfer
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks, republished in 2006
Related website: www.harpercollins.com (publisher)
Language level: 5 (obscenity and vulgarity)
Reading level: Only very mature teenagers and adults
Rating: 2 stars (poor)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Helfer, Ralph. Zamba: The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived (published in 2005 by HarperCOllins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York City, NY 10022). Ralph Helfer (born 1931) was one of Hollywood’s top animal trainers. Shocked at the cruelty which characterized the business, he developed what has become known as “affection training” in which love rather than fear is the basis for training even dangerous, exotic animals. In the early chapters of this book, Helfer writes about his deprived childhood in Chicago, IL, his move to southern California, and his introduction into the business of animal training. Then, he tells how Zamba was orphaned in Africa, saved by a couple who had heard some of Helfer’s presentations, and then given by them to Helfer, thus allowing him to prove his theories. The rest of the book explains Zamba’s training and the next eighteen years which the lion spent with Helfer. Much of the last portion describes their trip to Africa to film a movie. There is a chapter devoted to the devastating flood that destroyed much of Helfer’s compound. The final chapter is very poignant.
Since retiring from his work, Helfer has taken to writing. His first book, Modoc (1998), is about an elephant. He has also written Mosey (2002), about another elephant. Children love to read about animals. So when I saw Zamba on the bargain table at a bookstore, especially with the warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned picture of a little girl cuddled up next to the lion on the cover, I thought that it might be something suitable for young people. NOT! The book is very interesting, although some have objected to Helfer’s rather bombastic and what they perceive as egotistical style of writing, but the language is atrocious. Not only are there a fair amount of cursing, with the “h” and “d” words used several times, and profanity, with the Lord’s name occurring frequently as an interjection, but also there are some vulgarity and obscenity, with a few instances of the “s” word and even one of the “f” word. In fact, the very first chapter tells of an early encounter by Helfer with a lion, and when it lunges at him he says, “Oh s**t!” Granted he may have said it, but did he have to write it?
There are portions of the book which have no bad language and would be perfectly appropriate for children, but you just never know when or where it might pop up. It is a mixed bag. Helfer makes references to God’s creation, quotes the Bible, and talks about praying. But he also mentions his belief in “yin and yang” (a pagan “New Age” concept) and psychic phenomena and indicates his acceptance of evolution. On one occasion he expresses his belief in “nature as the true way to reach one’s God,” which does not comport with John 14:6. In addition, some “anti-man” and “animals are our brethren” sentiment occurs. Also, one section goes into a rather detailed description of a lion’s sexual practices, and there are hints of possible live-in arrangements by Helfer with a couple of girlfriends. If a condensed version that eliminated the objectionable material could be made, it would be great for the whole family. The bottom line is that while Zamba has a lot of fascinating material, I would certainly not just hand it to a young person who likes to read about lions. Born Free or Little Tyke would be much better for that.