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The Born Free Story: 50 Years Later – Virginia McKenna on the relationship between animals and humans

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Nature: Born Free Story - 50 Years Later - Virginia McKenna
Nature: Born Free Story - 50 Years Later - Virginia McKenna © 2011 Disney

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Joy Adamson’s milestone book, Born Free, which changed the way the public thought about wildlife. The true story of how George and Joy Adamson became surrogate parents of an orphaned lion cub named Elsa, and her eventual release back into the wild, sold millions of copies and was made into a popular movie of the same name in 1966, starring Bill Travers and his wife Virginia McKenna

On January 9th, PBS’ Nature will revisit the people featured in the film, plus George Adamson’s journal entries and archival home movies which will spotlight the shifting attitudes about conservation and their impact on lions in Africa.

I spoke with Virginia McKenna about her moving trip back to Africa where she and her late husband shot Born Free.

Can you talk about Joy Adamson? What was your opinion of her?

Nature: Born Free Story, 50 Years Later - Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna at the recent TCA event © 2011 Disney

As an actress, you can only interpret what the script allows you to do. The script for the humans in the film Born Free was quite limited inasmuch as developing characters is concerned. Joy was a much more complex character than was in the script, because the heart of the film wasn’t about the Adamsons and their relationship with each other, it was about their relationship with Elsa. That was what mattered.

Joy was hugely emotional, very passionate, enormously dedicated to trying to understand the individual animal, but not only that, the money that she got from her writings, and from the film, she poured back into conservation. And I would say to anyone who criticizes her, as many people did because she was sometimes quite difficult to get a long with, just look what she did. She contributed so much to conservation because of Elsa.

At the end of the film [in 1966], she invited me to go with her on my own up to Meru, which was the heart of The Born Free Story, which is in this documentary. We went to places where Elsa brought the cubs across the river, Elsa’s grave, the camp, Elsa’s rock, all of the places that meant so much to Joy. It was a very emotional trip, and I felt very honored and touched that she would invite me to go there. I wish I had gone before we made the film.

What kind of relationship did you have with the lions that played Elsa in the movie?

Nature: Born Free Story - 50 Years Later - Lion cub
Lion cub © 2011 Disney, Photo by Sacha Mirzoeff

We had two special lions, a boy and girl, who come from the Scots Guard Regiment in Nairobi. They were orphaned and they had been looked after by Sergeant Ryves until they were nine months old. The producers heard about them and they came to us, with their sergeant. He stayed for about 12 days and introduced us to them, because the introduction was very important.

We started to develop our friendship with these two animals, and we went out a lot on our own with them on the plains, playing hide and seek and football. One day I had a bit of an accident, and the Boy jumped on me and broke my ankle.

And the best thing in the whole world was when I came back to camp for the first time, and my leg was still in plaster, he greeted me when I called his name. I was in the car, and we wound the window down and he put half his body through the window and gave me such a hug. It was magic.

What does your Born Free Foundation do?

We started it in 1984 because of the death of an elephant at London Zoo in ’83, an elephant we had worked with in a film at the end of the ‘60s that we knew. My husband Bill and I were so shattered by the death of this wonderful teenage elephant that we decided that her death should not be in vain.

We started our organization in ’84, which was then known as Zoo Check because in the beginning our focus was totally on the situations of wild animals in captivity, whether it was the circus or the zoo. But as it developed, thanks mainly to the work of our son Will, we began to work with problems that they face in the wild too.

Any last thoughts about the documentary you’d like to share?

Nature: Born Free Story - 50 Years Later
Lionness lying © 2011 Disney, Photo by Clare Brook

I think the relationship between an animal and humans is enormously inspiring to watch. In America 100 million people have seen an incredible clip of Christian the lion greeting two Australian young men, Ace and John, when they returned to Kora National Park following George Adamson’s rehabilitation of Christian to the wild. Christian came from London, where I live in Surrey.

For four months, he lived in a compound in our garden, and then he went to Africa and was returned to the wild by George. And we were talking about how difficult that would be today, to take an animal from an urban environment and return it to the wild, because you’d have to have George Adamson.

My husband made a wonderful documentary called Christian: The Lion at World’s End and the story of Christian is part of the Born Free story. So people still have hope for the future.