BOOK REVIEW: When You Fight the Tiger

When You Fight the Tiger

1984’s When You Fight the Tiger profiles the day-to-day life of 16 year old Tana Helfer, daughter of famed exotic animal trainers, as she works and plays on the family’s animal compound, Gentle Jungle. The company raises and trains animals for work on the sets of movies, TV, and commercials. The title of the book refers to young Tana’s greatest dream—to wrestle a tiger who has been trained to “attack” on cue.

Tana begins her day in the elephant barn. The author writes:

The four elephants—Debbie, Lisa, Taj and Dixie—are swaying and shifting their weight from side to side.

Does she realize she’s just described  classic elephant stereotypic weaving ?

Like many captive performing elephants, these animals live a considerable part of their day at the end of a chain.

[W]hen Debbie raises her chained foot, Tana leans over and unclips the restraining chain that is bolted to the floor, and walks the elephant to the center of the barn.

It’s a brisk ten-minute walk past cages and pens to the field that is the elephants’ daytime home. … When they arrive, Tana uses the chains that are staked into the ground to tether the elephants.

A ten-minute walk isn’t much for animals that are genetically programmed to roam and forage most of the day. And while the text proudly notes that the tether chains give them 15-to-20 feet of movement, that isn’t much for an elephant! And all of that standing still, chaining and weaving can’t be good for their  feet.  In other concerns, one of the book’s  photos reveals that one elephant’s  tail is shaped in a rather severe zigzag, looking as if it was once broken and had not set properly. An old injury that perhaps didn’t happen at the ranch? The text does not reveal.

If there’s anything more worrisome than elephants in show business, it’s apes in show business. Gentle Jungle has several, including Michael, 7-month-old chimpanzee. The text reads:

When the Helfers got Michael he was very young and in need of mothering, so Tana happily raised him at home. When Michael was six months old, everyone decided it was time for him to get adjusted to ranch life.

There is no hint to as where the family “got” Michael, or what happened with his original mother. A rather troublesome thought, I might add. I likewise winced at a large photo of Tana carrying Michael piggyback. The infant ape is fully dressed, with a tiny child’s sweater, blue jeans, and even footie socks.

Michael is already used to wearing clothes, and that’s part of every young performing chimp’s education.

And every young performing ape eventually becomes an extremely strong, potentially dangerous, and moody adult animal who can no longer be safely worked with. I love a baby chimpanzee’s antics as much as anyone, but the story of apes in entertainment, overall, is a  very sad one.  The author reminds readers,

Orangutans and chimpanzees are a constant challenge, for the willful, bright animals continually test their trainers to see who has the upper hand. The trainer has to keep his or her psychological dominance over the ape. C.J. [the orangutan] could send Bill, or any trainer, sprawling through the air if he wanted to.

And where, exactly do these apes come from?

When they wanted a young orangutan, Boone was dispatched to a zoo that had some young orangs for sale.

It seems almost as if things were a free-for-all before the American Zoo Association made that rule about only allowing transfers of animals to other AZA-accredited facilities. This is good policy, especially with desperately endangered creatures like orangutans.

The danger of free contact with other species is duly noted. The author describes the practice of using backup trainers who carry sturdy wooden canes, in addition to the main trainers who interact with the animals.

Hitting an animal with the wooden cane that backup trainers carry would not hurt an animal, but it could divert the animal’s attention from its course of action, giving the trainer a chance to regain control.

Tara is shown wrestling a large black bear. Apparently this is a normal part of their acting training, but it brings to mind—uncomfortably—the barroom “bear wrestling” acts that once toured the country.

In other discomforts, there’s also a “humorous” aside that has Tara capturing some ducklings on the ranch in order to cuddle and kiss them. The girl is lunging forward on her knees and reaching into the flock of ducklings, who are clearly running from her at such a speed that some appear in the photographs as blurs. The mother duck is also running but is also looking backwards at her ducklings and Tara as she does so.

What of the training regimen? In the nearly three decades since this book was published, the steady flow of undercover videos from circuses, stage acts, and other animal training venues has caused more than one informed person to look askance at the industry. According to the author, Gentle Jungle is not one of the bad guys:

Years ago, when most animal trainers were old circus performers who cracked whips and carried guns and clubs, Ralph Helfer developed a new approach to educating wild animals. He called it affection training. … Affection Trained animals, proved to be more responsive and dependable than animals who were worked through fear, and Ralph’s methods were accepted.

All the animals at Gentle Jungle are Affection Trained. Trainers respect their animals. No guns, whips, or clubs are used. The animals are encouraged to learn. Some receive food rewards, all are praised and petted. The animals work because they want to. Many are primarily motivated by a desire to please their trainers.

“Animal People News,” a publication I highly respect, also puts in some  good words  for Gentle Jungle:

This company [Gentle Jungle] pioneered the use of affectionate nonviolent training methods in Hollywood as Africa, USA; merged with Marine World in 1985; and disappeared in name, though some of the animals may survive, when Marine World Africa USA became Six Flags Marine World in 1998.

Yet a letter writer from the group Primarily Primates had   this   in the same publication:

Gentle Jungle was then closed down by a USDA investigation and an eventual lawsuit against Helfer for Animal Welfare Act violations.

“Mother Jones” magazine had some more troubling and detailed  information to add:

Clyde the orangutan died a few months after filming Any Which Way You Can in 1980. During a federal hearing alleging animal mistreatment against the training company, Gentle Jungle, an assistant claimed a trainer beat Clyde with a cane and an ax handle. Gentle Jungle was fined for other abuses, but not for harming Clyde — at the time abusing primates was not illegal.

Continues the author of When You Fight the Tiger,

 Wild animal trainers who are in this league possess a high energy level, quick physical responses, and an almost natural species-to-species rapport with wild animals that enables them to dominate with ease.

(This review originally appeared at


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