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Modoc: an inspiring, plausible, story of the bond between human and elephant

The story of Bram Gunterstein and the Asian elephant Modoc is amazingly told even if it cannot be separated from the dramatization assumed to have been added to it. If it isn’t true, it’s a human being’s fantastical attempt to imagine up a bond between human and elephant that is so strong it overcomes trauma. If it is true, even if only in part, its breath-taking and heart-wrenching. Either way, it shows the healthy respect those that have come into contact with them accord to elephant.

It’s a story that begins on the same day in 1896. Bram is born to circus animal-training parents on the same day that Modoc, a female elephant, is born into circus captivity.

The tale of Modoc and Bram is told, alleging itself to be based on a true story, by American writer and owner of many American wildlife parks, Ralph Helfer. Helfer tells Modoc as an integral part of it.

In the book, the Guntersteins work for a German circus and they are unique in the animal training/circus environment for the fact that they choose to train animals through praise instead of intimidation. Bram Gunterstein, newly brought into the world, grows up alongside Modoc and takes to the training of the elephant with ease.

When Modoc is old enough, she begins to perform but not long after her entertainment debut, the circus owner falls ill and is forced to sell the circus. An American Mr. North buys the circus and immediately begins the process of shipping it, without Bram, half-way across the earth.

Bram, unwilling to lose Modoc, stows away on-board the container ship and is, as a result, with Modoc when the ship goes down in the Indian ocean. By clinging to Modoc’s back, Bram and a few other survivors make it to the coast of India where Bram and Modoc’s incredible, almost unbelievable, tale takes a new turn.

They live, work and thrive in the Maharajah’s elephantarium. Bram gets married, his status is exalted locally and the pair live a seemingly peaceful life until Mr. North, looking to reclaim his wares, arrives.

With much tragedy, travel and intrigue enwrapped in the pair’s attempt to escape Mr. North, their efforts are in vain. Mr. North finds Modoc and Bram and eventually gets them shipped to America where they become reluctant star attractions. In America, Modoc’s fame and life in a circus that doesn’t celebrate the same treatment Bram’s family espoused is tough on the elephant.

She is eventually adjudged to be too damaged for performance and is sold without Bram’s knowledge. Modoc and Bram are separated. Modoc goes on to spend years in a rough and demanding entertainment industry without Bram. Her health deteriorates consistently, seemingly being sold off whenever her temperament or health becomes a problem to her owners. Eventually, she is found and bought by the book’s author, Ralph Helfer.

Helfer brings the traumatised elephant to his ranch. He finds, in his new acquisition, a performer that seems to know a great deal more tricks than he was led to believe. Modoc is rehabilitated slowly until, some ten years after their separation, Bram, allegedly looking for work, comes into the ranch and hears her voice. The story ends with the pair rekindling their relationship.

It’s an amazing, heart-wrenching and inspiring, story that has captivated the focus of many a reader. It has, as a result, been bored into and analysed by many a fan hoping to find observable evidence of the journeying and fame of Bram and Modoc. Unfortunately, little can be found to verify the story laid out by Ralph Helfer.

Certainly, there is much that is fantastical about the events integral in the shaping of this story. However, what is really amazing, and truly captivating, about the story of Modoc and Bram is less the travels and the trauma and more the relationship. If we cannot verify things like the story’s shipwreck or Modoc’s America fame, we certainly can’t verify the fact of Modoc’s observable improvement in temperament when Bram came back into her life.

Sometimes, the search for qualifiable truths gets in the way of the telling of a great story, and Modoc is a great story. Give it a read, suspend your search for the verifiable, and enjoy the expanding of a great celebration of the personal and enduring bond possible between an elephant and a human being.


If you want to read more about the great capacity of elephants, read this article that details three real-life, monitored events that demonstrate how intelligent they are. 

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