Christian the lion at Sophistocat

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

Bill Travers and Christian the Lion in the Sophistocat Furniture Store
"We had a Gypsy caravan in our garden in Surrey, and my husband [Bill Travers] thought he was going to use it as an office, so he wanted a desk. We went to London one day when I was visiting my dressmaker, whose place was just near a furniture shop called Sophistocat. I was there for a little while, and when I came out and Bill wasn't there, I said to the dressmaker, 'That's really odd.' He said, 'Oh, they've got this animal with spots or stripes; I can't remember which.'

"Of course, I was absolutely agog with curiosity. I went to the shop, and, of course, there was Christian. So, the two young men who owned it, Ace and John, asked my husband if he had any ideas of what could happen, because Christian was getting too large to keep in the shop, and he was only 8 or 9 months at this point. Every time people came, he had to be put in the basement. My husband said, 'Would you agree for Christian to go to Kenya and be returned to the wild by George Adamson?' and they said yes."
George Adamson and Bill Travers in Meru, Kenya

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

George Adamson (left) with Bill in Meru, Kenya
"George Adamson was born in India and came to England and eventually wound up in Kenya, where he became a game warden and met his wife, Joy. It was around this time that Elsa, the lion in Born Free, came into their lives.

"When my husband and I agreed to play the Adamsons, we didn't really know what we were going to let ourselves in for, but we're both people who enjoy adventure and challenge, and we thought it sounded amazing. We found ourselves sometime later on a boat with our three children going to Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya and then traveling up country to a place called Nyeri.

"George was invited to be the lion man on the set of the film, and we had the most fantastic collection of lions that came from all over the country. He showed us, by example, how to behave with them and how to form a friendship. It was the best way to tell the story of Born Free, which is a story of love and affection and trust between two humans and a lioness. With a trained animal, it would have been quite artificial, I think.

"George also became a great friend of ours. My husband and he were very, very close indeed. They remained so until he was killed in 1989."
Christian the Lion with Bill Travers, John Rendall, Ace Berg, and Virginia McKenna in Surrey

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

Bill Travers, John Rendall, Ace Berg, and Virginia McKenna with Christian in Surrey
"We didn't know how long this would take to organize Christian's move to Kenya because you have to get permission from the government to bring a lion to Africa. Once they agreed, a place had to be found that had water but no people.

"During the four months my husband and George were searching, Christian came to live with us in Surrey. We built a proper living enclosure in the garden with double gates and an overhang. I remember he had his first birthday here because they made him a lovely minced meat cake. Getting to know him was absolutely wonderful, as you can imagine."
Christian the Lion with Bill Travers, John Rendall, Ace Berg, and Virginia McKenna at the beach

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

Bill, John, Ace, Virginia and Christian at the Beach
"We had that wonderful morning where we went down to the beach on the south coast of England in the very early morning and ran along the beach with him. The thing is, not every lion likes water, so we'd hoped he would have a bit of a paddle and a splash, but he didn't really like the water at all. He dipped his toes in—or his paws in—then shook them and then didn't want anything more to do with the sea. But we brought balloons, and we chased along the beach, and then we all flopped down and had a lovely sit together. It was like a dream, in a way. Of course, you couldn't do anything like that now with all the rules, but in those days, things could happen."
Virginia, Bill, Christian the lion, John and Ace outside the caravan in Surrey

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

Virginia, Bill, Christian, John and Ace Outside the Caravan in Surrey
"Christian was a very wonderfully natured animal; you used to be able to go into his enclosure and sit with him. He was not at all aggressive. Luckily, Ace and John took him from the department store when he was very small, and [he] was only treated with kindness, was only loved. He shared their life, and he never had any reason to be afraid.

"A lot of wild animals are dominated, so they behave in a certain way because they are afraid of being punished. Or, in the wild, they are hunted, and so they are afraid when the see humans. There are very many ways that you can think about animals and treat animals, and if people don't really have respect for the nature of the animal, I'm afraid that it is usually the animal that pays the price."
Bill, Christian, Ace and John in Kora, Kenya

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

Bill, Christian, Ace and John in Kora, Kenya
"But thanks to George and Bill, Christian made it to Kenya. Here he is in Kora on the banks of the Tana River.

"George knew that lions are social animals, so for hunting and for all other reasons, it is much better to have a group who are going to be taught to go back to the wild rather than a solitary one. So, he had a group of other lions, mainly female, that Christian joined before he reintroduced them to the wild.

"One of the challenges was for Christian to establish a territory for himself in Kora because already there were wild lions in that area. Of course, there were scuffles in order for him to be able to do that. He came out of it triumphant until, after three years of being out there in the wild, he disappeared and didn't return. But, George always believed he survived."
George Adamson

Photo: © Virginia McKenna/

George Adamson in Kora
"Kora is amazing. Kora is very wild. George's camp there is being restored, and it is the hope that, one day, people will be able to visit and see where George lived and where he is buried; Boy [a lion he worked with], George's brother Terrance and George himself are buried there. You can visit their graves, which I have done more than once. It is a very moving place because you are just in the middle of nowhere, and you can feel the history of George's life there. It is a privilege to go; it really is.

"Ever since doing the film, I'd made up my mind that we had to do something for animals. In 1984, we started a little charity that was called Zoo Check [eventually becoming the Born Free Foundation] because in those days we were really concentrating on looking into the problems for captive animals. It has given me a sort of second life because I loved being an actress when I was, but now, all I want to do, really, is work for wildlife. Giving an animal that has had a horrible life a bit of a second chance is something very special for me. And isn't it exciting that, at my age, I can still do these things and be a part of it?"
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