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Virginia McKenna on Born Free and Conservation Today

By Michele C. Hollow

I so enjoyed interviewing Virginia, and got so much information, that I wanted to share it with you. Here is Part II of Pet News and Views’ interview with Virginia McKenna.

Virginia and her son, Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation

PNAV: What was it that made you form the Born Free Foundation?
Virginia: My husband Bill Travers, our eldest son Will and I first founded Zoo Check in 1984. In 1991, this became The Born Free Foundation. Following an involvement in the film Born Free we became deeply interested in wildlife issues and, at that time, strongly focused on wildlife in captivity. My husband began his wildlife documentary career with The Lions Are Free. This was an account of what happened to some of the lions that were in Born Free, and was the first record of George Adamson’s lion rehabilitation work.

It was the death of Pole Pole, a teenage elephant at London Zoo that was the catalyst that started our charity. She had been in one of my husband’s films, An Elephant Called Slowly (1968). We found her at a trapper’s yard in Nairobi, where she awaited shipment to the zoo having been caught at age two, and torn from her family. We asked if we could buy her and we were told we could but another little elephant would have to be captured. We had no choice but to let fate take its course.

PNAV: How has lion conservation changed over the years?
Virginia: Lion conservation has deteriorated in spite of attempts by many wildlife services and groups to prevent this. In Kenya there are less than 2,000 lions left. They face many challenges–poaching for trophies and traditional Chinese medicine, hunting (though not in Kenya), diminution of habitat, poisoning, and revenge killing.

PNAV: What was it like working with wild animals?
Virginia: Before filming began, Bill and I spent about 2 months getting to know our Elsas. We were out on a deserted airstrip and were stalking some gazelles who, sensibly, were keeping their distance. We were with Boy and Girl, a brother and sister who had been reared (as orphans) by the Scots Guards regiment in Nairobi. We were crawling on our hands and knees, following the lions and I stood up for a moment as my knees were getting sore. Boy looked round and noticed me. He was very excited and just took off and landed on my shoulders. I fell and broke my ankle. My return to camp, and meeting Boy again was very special. I didn’t know if he would remember me or how he would react. As we drove into camp he and Girl, George and Bill were returning from their walk. I opened the window and called him. He came over and put his huge head and half of his body through to give me the most incredible welcome.

PNAV: Tell us about the center in Ethiopia.
Virginia: Next year we hope to open one of Born Free’s major projects–a rescue and education centre and a veterinary clinic. It is already underway and we already have a queue of animals awaiting their new home: Dolo the lion, kept for 4 years in a shed with a one meter chain round his neck; Menelik, the cheetah, who as a cub was kept in a shop; Safia, the lion cub, who was chained in a small shed; and there are other lions, leopard tortoises, and an eagle owl. More will follow I’m sure.

Education, of course, is of huge importance. Teaching everyone about wild animals and their environment, about respect for both is essential. We are very excited that we have this opportunity and must express our gratitude to President Girma Wolde-Giorgis who has supported Born Free during the two years it has taken to get the project started. I hope very much to meet him when I go to Ethiopia for the opening of Ensessakoteh (Animal Footprint) Centre.

PNAV: What key issues is the Born Free Foundation focusing on right now?
Virginia: Captive wildlife in zoos, circuses and dolphinaria, wildlife trade, wild animals in performances, animals caught in illegal snares, hunting, poaching, ivory poaching, canned hunting (where animals are kept in large confined areas and can be hunted with no chance of escape), animals that are victims of Traditional Chinese Medicine–tigers, lions, rhinos, Asiatic black bears, and capture of wild animals for the zoo industry, circuses and the pet trade.

We are currently finalizing a large survey of European Zoos which will be published in the spring. We continue with our Global Friends project, where we can assist local communities that live near our wildlife projects, with education and health. We have recently rescued 2 dolphins from a filthy swimming pool in Turkey. They are now recovering in a large sea pen we have made and we hope, in time, they will be fit enough to be released into the ocean.

At Born Free USA work continues to rescue abused primates, re-homing them in our Texas Primate Sanctuary (now housing about 500 animals). Campaigning against the hunting of bears for bile (for Traditional Chinese Medicine), supporting legislation now being considered by Congress to end chemical assault on wildlife, working with Born Free in the UK on all the ongoing trade issues discussed at the CITES (Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species ) meetings. And many other issues besides.

Read the Book
Want to know more about Virginia’s life as an actress and activist? Then read her book, The Life in My Years, which is filled with anecdotes about working in Hollywood and in Europe as well as her life as an animal rights activist.

Voted one of the most inspirational people of all time in a Daily Telegraph poll, McKenna was awarded the OBE for services to the arts and animal conservation in 2004 and in 2010 was voted a winner of the Alternative Rich List in the UK, an award designed to recognize individuals who enrich other people’s lives in ways money cannot.

The Life in My Years is available at Born Free USA and most bookstores. The book, published by Oberon Books, retails for $25 in paperback and $35 in hardcover.

Pet News and Views is giving away one autographed copy of Virginia’s book. Just leave a comment at the end of this post, and I will collect all of the names and put it into Randomizer.org to pick a winner. The contest ends on Sunday, January 9, 2011.

And be sure to watch In Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story on January 9 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS. If you missed Part I of this interview, click here. On Saturday, I’m posting Virginia’s take on the filming of Christian the Lion–the popular YouTube video.

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