50 years on

HR-Virginia-McKenna-(c)-M-SloughBorn Free founder Virginia McKenna OBE considers the significance of ‘just one lioness’ and the true story of her journey to freedom

“On 14 March 1966 my husband, Bill, Joy Adamson and I waited to be presented to Her Majesty the Queen. It was the London premiere of the film of Joy’s famous book, Born Free. Enveloped in the expectancy and sparkle of a ‘first night’, it felt light years away from those extraordinary days in Kenya, walking with conservationist George Adamson and a lion out on the plains.

“Soon after, Bill started his independent documentary film company and it was the film An Elephant Called Slowly, made in Kenya in 1968, that changed our lives forever. Pole Pole, a wild-caught two-year- old elephant, had also been in our film, but she died aged 17, alone in London Zoo. We had, of course, asked if we could buy her so she could join the rescued animals that David and Daphne Sheldrick looked after in Tsavo National Park, where David was Senior Warden. The answer was ‘yes’, but another little one would have to be captured as the elephant was an official gift from the Kenyan government to the zoo. We were helpless.

“Her untimely death was the catalyst and in 1984 Zoo Check was born, founded by Bill and I with our son Will – the charity that has evolved into the Born Free Foundation. We started to visit zoos, circuses, talk about them, take photos and film them. We bore the brunt of harsh criticism from the zoo community, but nothing would deter us from the path we had chosen.

“You may think to yourself – what has changed? There are still zoos and circuses, animals are still being trained to do meaningless tricks, kept in concrete cages or in circus trailers. Yes, but things are different – there are fewer zoos, circuses with wild animals have almost disappeared in the UK (to follow 23 more enlightened countries that have already banned them), and thousands more people share our point of view.

“I would like to say how much I admire those who raise their voices for animals – the world we live in is increasingly tormented and fragile. At Born Free I believe we have grown because we have been faithful to our roots, we haven’t swerved from the rocky path we chose 32 years ago. We are a group of people bound by our feelings of compassion and our love for the individual. Whether human or animal.”

The charity features Elsa on its logo, the true story of her journey to freedom inspires everything the Foundation does. Born Free never forgets the importance of the individual.

Visit www.bornfree.org.uk to join as a member, adopt an animal, sign up for their FREE monthly e-news or purchase a wild gift from their online shop.