He was born in Chicago and had one sister, Sally. In 1942, his mother left her husband Sam and moved with her children to Hollywood, where they settled in the Green Apartments, one block off Hollywood Boulevard.
In 1955 he purchased a 1,500-acre (6.1 km2) Vasquez Rocks property to train animals, which he called Nature's Haven. He married Toni Ringo in 1963. They had a daughter, Tana Helfer. In 1963 the property was cut in half by the Antelope Valley Freeway. They relocated to Soledad Canyon. They bought 600 acres (2.4 km2) of land to build their new ranch and decided to name it Africa U.S.A. Africa U.S.A. was a training compound and a provider of animals for Hollywood (Clarence, the cross-eyed lion, and Judy the chimp in Daktari, and Ben (originally named Bruno) the bear in Gentle Ben). The compound was also used as location for shows such as Daktari and the original Star Trek episode "Shore Leave." Perhaps Helfer's most famous animal he trained was Zamba, who appeared in the MGM logo as Leo the Lion from 1957 to the present.
During these years, Helfer created what he called "affection training", which purported to replace the whip, gun, and chair of the old-school handlers with love, understanding, and respect. Critics state that affection training indeed consisted in surgically modifying (declawing and defanging) the animals and administering sedatives. Ralph Helfer denies this and stated that "this was done to animals that had deformities and were injurious to their health."
In January 1969, Africa U.S.A. was devastated by a powerful storm over Soledad Canyon which dropped large amounts of rainfall in the region. This resulted in severe flooding and mudslides in the canyons. 20 of the 1,500 animals of the ranch were killed by the torrential flooding.
Ralph Helfer bought out Marine World in 1972 when it went bankrupt and added a wildlife park and "jungle theater", renaming the park as Marine World/Africa U.S.A. This park was the predecessor of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. He also was a partner and chairman in a small Buena Park, California, theme park called Enchanted Village which was built on the site of the defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park amusement attraction. When this park went bankrupt in fall 1977 he created another company and training park called "Gentle Jungle". The Gentle Jungle Affection Training School was based in Colton, California and later in Lion Country Safari, in Orange County; finally Gentle Jungle was investigated by USDA where an eventual lawsuit against Helfer for Animal Welfare Act violations. During this period he was the owner of the "human" chimp Oliver. Ralph Helfer was cleared of all accusations except one, which was sent to the supreme court, which was meant to deal with the death of a tiger, who died due to a veterinarian over dosing the tiger, it never got to the supreme court as that would be the same as blaming a child's death on a parent who took their child to a doctor who miss-administrated drugs to the child. Ralph Helfer left the business due to the imminent financial pressure of the wrongful suit.
In the 1990s, he began a successful career as a writer. Most of his books are non fiction life stories of famous animals. He now lives in Los Angeles and Kenya, where he leads safari tours with his company Eden International Safaris and Treks.
Toni Ringo Helfer (d. March 20, 2012) published the book The Gentle Jungle (Brigham Young University Press - 1980 - ISBN 0-8425-1790-1). She made the cover of TV Guide in 1968. Ralph and Toni are now divorced. Ralph Helfer's current wife is now Suzzi Mutua, who works with him as safari hostess at Eden International.
- The Beauty of the Beasts - J.P. Tarcher - 1990 - ISBN 0-87477-516-7
- Modoc - HarperCollins - 1998 - ISBN 0-06-092951-0
- Mosey - Orchard - 2002 - ISBN 0-439-29313-8
- Zamba - HarperCollins - 2005 - ISBN 0-06-076132-6
- History of Vasquez Rocks
- African Safari: Kenya Imagine Seeing So Many Animals--And So Close? Archived 2003-12-05 at Archive.today - Duncan Strauss
- Oliver's Travels - The Atlantic - James Shreeve - October 2003
- Porec, Robert (December 1995). "Oliver". Animal People News: 3–4.
- Film: Lions reap people in 'Harvest' New York Times - By Vincent Canby - May 23, 1981
- Biography on HarperCollins web site
- The Gentle Jungle by Toni Ringo Helfer - Sweet Trouble
- TV Guide - June 22, 1968
- Kenya School for Orphans: Nadine Griffey Academy of Kenya - Biographies for the Board of Directors in California and Kenya