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Virginia McKenna, founder of Born Free Foundation, on Elsa’s Legacy

By Michele C. Hollow

Part I: I got so much good information from Virginia McKenna that I thought it would be best to run this in 3 parts.

Many of you may not be old enough to remember the book or the film Born Free, a story by Joy Adamson that changed the way people think about wildlife. The dramatic telling of Joy and her husband, George, becoming surrogate parents to orphaned lion cub Elsa and her eventual release back into the wild, sold millions of copies. The successful film based on the book went on to win two Academy Awards. Actress Virginia McKenna and her husband actor Bill Travers portrayed the Adamsons in the 1966 film, and Virginia received a Golden Globe nomination for her role.

Virginia McKenna on location with Elsa the lion.

Fast Forward 50 Years Later
Virginia can be seen In Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story on January 9 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS. In this PBS Nature series, we get a behind the scenes look at the making of Born Free illuminated by George Adamson’s journal entries, archival home movies, and conversations with the Adamsons’ close confidants; the film reveals shifting attitudes about conservation and its impact on lions in Africa.

“I became involved because I was in the film and knew the Adamsons,” says Virginia. “Also, some of my late husband’s (Bill Travers) documentary footage is used clips from The Lions are Free and Christian. (You may know Christian the Lion from the popular YouTube video.) I felt very privileged to be invited to be a part of this project. Our lives were completely changed by the experience of making Born Free. In 1984, we started our animal welfare charity Zoo Check, renamed The Born Free Foundation in 1991. Our son Will is Born Free’s CEO.”

Joy and George Adamson: The Inspiration
The Adamsons introduced the radical idea that wild animals should be treated as unique individuals and fostered the concept of saving lions by directly relating to them. Their approach to working with lions, although successful, left people vulnerable to unpredictable attacks. Joy was brutally murdered by a disgruntled staff member at her reserve. And nearly 10 years after her death, George was gunned down by poachers and bandits who wanted to shut down his camp.

Despite criticism of their work, the Adamsons developed intriguing insights about animal behavior and laid the foundation for future conservationists. Before them, no one had attempted or knew how to rehabilitate a domesticated wild animal. “Their ground-breaking experiment with Elsa profoundly transformed our view of the natural world,” says Virginia.

Today, at age 79, McKenna spends most of her time volunteering at the Born Free Foundation. She continues to work to encourage a greater understanding for wild animals and their right to live in the wild as nature intended. She is also involved with the rescue of individual animals from intolerable captive conditions and their re-homing to Born Free sponsored rescue centers in Africa and India. The newest, being created in Ethiopia, already has a list of animals waiting to be welcomed to a better life.

Be sure to watch the special on PBS, and tune in here this Friday to read more from Virginia on wildlife conservation, the Born Free Foundation, and her new book, The Life in My Years. On Saturday, I am running a behind the scenes interview with Virginia about Christian the lion.

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