- Virginia McKenna, 90, who starred in film Born Free said it transformed her life
- After filming, she was horrified to learn most of the lions would be taken to zoos
- Her and husband Bill gave up Hollywood and dedicated lives to conservation
Helena Horton For The Daily Mail
When Virginia McKenna was asked to star in the film Born Free with her husband Bill Travers she knew it might be career-changing, but she could never have guessed it would transform her life.
Virginia has always had an affection for animals, but it was getting to know the lions in the film that made her and Bill give up their Hollywood careers and dedicate their lives to conservation.
The 1966 film was based on the true story of wildlife conservationist George Adamson and his wife Joy, who had taken in three orphaned lion cubs and raised one of them, Elsa, to adulthood before releasing her into the wild.
It was the most popular movie at the British box office that year and won two Oscars, but for Virginia and Bill, who played the Adamsons, it changed everything.
‘Before Born Free we knew almost nothing about lions or the wider conservation world,’ Virginia, 90, tells me from her cottage in the Surrey Hills. Virginia McKenna, 90, speaking from her cottage in the Surrey Hills, said starring in 1966 film Born Free with husband Bill Travers transformed her life. Pictured Virginia with lioness, Girl
‘So on the three-week voyage by ship to Kenya we spent almost all our time reading every book or article about lions we could. But it was the constant presence of George, who was the technical advisor on the film, that taught us so much – how to interpret lion behaviour, how to tell when one was unsettled or relaxed.
‘We learned about the challenges facing wildlife, although in those days it seemed as if the natural world went on forever. I think I’m right in saying that when Born Free was made there were 100,000 to 200,000 wild lions across Africa. Today there are just 20,000. Making Born Free was the spark for us.’
Bill had starred in films with Ava Gardner and Jean Simmons while Virginia, nine years his junior, was a stunning up-and-coming actress when they first met as the leads in the play I Capture The Castle in 1954. They met again two years later after Virginia had split up with her husband Denholm Elliott and were married within a year. They went on to star in a number of films together before Born Free made them global stars. When filming finished Virginia and Bill were horrified to learn that most of the 20 or so lions used in the film would be taken to zoos and wildlife parks around the globe. Pictured: Virginia and Bill as Joy and George with some of the adorable cubs in 1966’s Born Free It made her and Bill (pictured) give up their Hollywood careers and dedicate their lives to conservation
But when filming finished Virginia and Bill were horrified to learn that most of the 20 or so lions used in the film would be taken to zoos and wildlife parks around the globe. ‘This was terrible,’ she says. ‘But we managed to save three of them, including a brother and sister and a big lion who was saved from an animal orphanage in Nairobi.’
George persuaded Virginia and Bill to stay with him and the lions in Kenya’s Meru National Park instead of returning to Hollywood, but they soon found that living with big cats could be unpredictable. ‘One day we were out walking with two young lions, Boy and Girl,’ recalls Virginia.
‘They started to stalk a group of gazelle, and Boy kept snagging our ankles to get us to join them in the game. On our hands and knees we crept closer, but it was painful and at one stage I stood up. The spell was broken and Boy leapt at me, not in anger but more with a sense of regret that the game was over. Soon they were campaigning for an end to wildlife in captivity, but it was an experience with Pole Pole the baby elephant that made Virginia come to the conclusion that all zoos should be shut. Pictured: The powerful Mail photo of Pole Pole reaching out to Virginia and Bill at London Zoo
Click here to resize this module One of several features the Daily Mail ran in 1983 supporting Virginia and Bill’s Pole Pole crusade, pictured
AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS ITS REAL HOME
We called her name and she stretched out her trunk to us: Virginia and her husband Bill Travers (pictured) visiting Pole Pole in 1983
The phone call I received from Virginia McKenna to my office at the Daily Mail in Fleet Street on 18 October 1983, in which she sobbed uncontrollably at the death of a much-loved elephant, will be forever etched on my mind. I wasn’t to know it at the time, but it was a moment that would play a significant role in igniting the global conservation movement, helped by a Daily Mail photograph.
The Mail was supporting Virginia in her battle to have Pole Pole the elephant moved from her desolate enclosure at London Zoo to a large leafy space at Whipsnade, and had published several moving features about the elephant’s plight. From time to time Virginia and her husband Bill Travers visited Pole Pole, taking her a big bag of oranges, her favourite fruit. As soon as Pole Pole heard Virginia calling, she would stop pacing her pen, walk to the moat and extend her trunk to touch Bill and Virginia’s outstretched hands in recognition of her old friends.
As Virginia shed tears at this poignant moment, Daily Mail photographer Ted Blackbrow took what has become one of the most powerful images ever in the campaign against locking wild animals up in zoos. The photo hung on the wall of the features department at the Mail and I was looking at it when Virginia, weeping, told me the shocking news. ‘Pole Pole’s dead. They’ve killed her. And London Zoo must take the blame.’
Despite her distress, Virginia wrote a moving article about Pole Pole for the Mail which was published all over the world alongside Ted’s photograph. Thousands of messages of sympathy reached Virginia, and the zoo sustained such a bombardment of criticism it eventually closed its elephant compound in Regent’s Park and began a revolutionary reorganisation of the animals’ living spaces.
It was Pole Pole’s death that led Virginia to set up the campaign group Zoo Check, which began with an auction of personal possessions from friends in a room above the Queen’s Elm pub in Chelsea, conducted by Ronnie Corbett, that raised £2,000. Today, 37 years later and now known as the Born Free Foundation, it has 200 employees and an annual income of £5m.
‘There is no doubt the Daily Mail photograph was a catalyst for change,’ Virginia tells me now. ‘How could people fail to respond to such a deeply poignant image. An elephant never forgets… and it never forgets it was born free. It was wonderful the paper was there to record the moment, and we are grateful for it.’
‘I heard a sickening snap in my ankle when I landed with Boy on top of me. Bill took off his shirt and wiggled it through the grass to distract Boy, and he managed to get the lions into the back of the Land Rover before taking me to hospital. I was in plaster for weeks, but who was the first to greet me when I came back? Boy! He came straight up to the Land Rover and stuck his massive head through the half-open window to say hello.’
Soon Virginia and Bill were campaigning for an end to wildlife in captivity, but it was the traumatic experience with her ‘adorable little friend’ Pole Pole the baby elephant while making the 1969 film An Elephant Called Slowly that brought Virginia to the conclusion that all zoos should be shut.
In the film Bill and Virginia played themselves, house-sitting in Kenya, when three elephants turn up in the grounds and ‘adopt’ their new humans before returning to the wild when they leave.
After filming Pole Pole was due to make the long journey from Nairobi to a concrete enclosure at London Zoo. Virginia begged the government to let her buy the elephant and take it to a safe place, but they would agree only if they could take another elephant from the wild for the zoo.
‘It was shattering,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t endorse another elephant being taken from its family to go into captivity, we just couldn’t.’
A decade later, she and Bill mustered the emotional strength to visit their imprisoned friend a few times at London Zoo. ‘We called her name and she stretched out her trunk to touch our hands,’ she recalls. ‘It’s a moment I shall never forget. I suppose it was then that we became activists, and we campaigned for Pole Pole to go back to Africa.’
But the story gets worse. In 1983 Pole Pole was due to be transferred to Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, which would have more space and a herd for her to join. First she was darted with tranquillisers, but part of the needle was left in her skin and turned septic.
‘They then kept her standing in her travelling crate for many hours and she collapsed,’ says Virginia, her voice cracking. ‘They examined her and said she’d lost the will to live. Her death is what caused all this to start.’
Sitting around their kitchen table in Surrey, Virginia, Bill and their son Will set up Zoo Check to hold zoos to account and ensure they treated wild animals properly. Zoo Check (which evolved into the Born Free Foundation) sent out a survey to investigate 340 zoos on the continent, but it was found that there were actually 1,007, meaning only just over a third were registered.
This led to the 1999 EU Zoos Directive, requiring registration as well as adherence to conservation, welfare and education criteria. ‘Our purpose was to look at what was going on in zoos and the consequences for the animals,’ explains Virginia. ‘If no one agreed with us we would have disappeared without a trace. But we’ve just marked our 37th birthday.’
Pole Pole’s death also led Virginia to lead a campaign to stop London Zoo housing elephants, and in 2001 the zoo shut its elephant enclosure after more than 170 years.
And just last month it was announced that legislation is being prepared that would prohibit the importation of any new elephants to UK zoos, with the existing population being allowed to die out naturally.
It is also proposed that zoos will lose their charitable status if they fail to prove they’re doing sufficient conservation work.
‘Zoos will never be acceptable,’ says Virginia. ‘Of course, if an animal becomes injured in the wild it has to be looked after, but you can’t then keep a wild animal out of the wild. I don’t believe in people being locked up unless they’ve done something terribly wrong. These animals haven’t done anything wrong and they’re being locked up anyway. The zoos are saying, “Hooray, the visitors are coming back,” after lockdown, but I wonder if the visitors realise that lockdown for these animals is permanent.’ Virginia (pictured) remains an irrepressible activist at 90, saying, zoos will ‘never be acceptable’ as ‘lockdown for these animals is permanent’ Virginia pictured paying her respects at the grave of the real lion, Elsa, in Kenya, which the film Born Free was based on
Virginia, Bill and Will have been one of conservation’s most influential families, with the Born Free Foundation changing the lives of millions of creatures in captivity. Ironically, it was Born Free the film, Bill’s most successful ever, that made him turn his back on stardom and concentrate on animal documentaries.
CARRIE’S FIGHTING VIRGINIA’S CORNER
Virginia has an ally in the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson. Pictured: With Damian Aspinall
Virginia has an ally in the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson, who runs communications for the Aspinall Foundation and shares the belief that all wild animals should be returned to their natural habitat.
Although Damian Aspinall and his family own two wildlife parks in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne, they say that all their animals are earmarked to return to the wild. They breed populations of endangered species in large numbers so they can be released in Africa, and are responsible for the successful reintroduction of gorillas to Gabon.
Carrie has been a vocal campaigner against the neglect of animals in zoos, recently steering the Aspinall Foundation to petition for help for a sick lion languishing in Tehran Zoo. Pictured: The sick Tehran lion
Kamran, a rare Asiatic lion, was moved there from Bristol Zoo in 2019 but contracted a disease called feline viral rhinotracheitis. The Aspinall Foundation has called for urgent medical help for Kamran, and a move to a more suitable enclosure.
Virginia is sympathetic to their views, but remains unconvinced that animals should be bred away from their natural habitat. ‘Damian Aspinall has certainly done more than most,’ she says, ‘but it’s very expensive and fraught with difficulties. I’m still in two minds.’
‘He did acting off and on but documentaries were what he wanted to do,’ Virginia recalls. ‘And Hollywood was all a bit too contrived for me. George’s little camp was so real. Every day was a beautiful, simple, authentic challenge. We once went with our four children for Christmas. It was surreal sitting in his mess-hut eating Christmas lunch wearing paper hats, with lions resting quietly just outside the perimeter fence.’
It was while Bill was filming documentaries about zoos in Europe that he coined the word ‘zoochosis’, to describe the unnatural behaviour exhibited by captive animals. ‘We saw great apes smearing faeces on the walls, giraffes compulsively licking the bars of their enclosure and an elephant smashing its trunk on the side of its face,’ says Virginia. ‘That’s the sort of behaviour seen by prisoners in solitary confinement.’
Realising the impact Born Free had on the public, Virginia, Bill and Will renamed their charity after the blockbuster in 1991. Virginia has coaxed celebrity friends into joining the cause, including Martin Clunes, Bryan Adams and Joanna Lumley, who was their first patron. Born Free has since led a successful campaign to ban the use of wild animals in circuses in this country as of January last year, and played a part in ending the UK’s dolphinarium industry – there were once more than 30 aquariums with dolphins here but the final tank was drained in 1993.
Yet while Born Free makes convincing arguments, the general consensus is still in favour of zoos. Proponents argue they give people a chance to become concerned about endangered species they would otherwise not know about. They have also saved many animals from extinction, including the Brazilian Spix’s macaw, star of 2011 Disney film Rio, which was declared extinct in the wild in 2018 but is now due to be returned to the wild after a successful breeding programme. All regulated zoos in Europe have to dedicate a portion of their takings to conservation, and London Zoo has improved habitats for animals across the globe, from angel sharks off the coast of Wales to the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia.
But Virginia’s son Will thinks zoos do more harm than good, and believes it’s wasteful to spend millions of pounds on state-of-the-art enclosures when the wild is crying out for investment, pointing out that some enclosures cost more than the entire wildlife budget of some African countries. ‘As an example, they built a new elephant house at Los Angeles Zoo seven or eight years ago. The old one was just under two acres, the new one is just over two acres, and it cost $14 million,’ he says. ‘That’s close to the entire annual operating budget of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is responsible for 6 million acres of land, 35,000 elephants, 1,000 rhino and 2,500 lions. Born Free can’t accept this is the best we can do, because it clearly isn’t.’
So what would happen to the animals if all zoos were shut? Born Free’s position is that zoos should be phased out over time, giving the animals in captivity a chance to live out their natural lives or be rehomed in more humane conditions. ‘We started campaigning on circus animals in the mid-90s, and the use of wild animals in circuses was eventually ended in 2019, 25 years later,’ explains Virginia, who hopes her plans for the closure of zoos will be her legacy. ‘It’ll be challenging and we’ll need to be brave but if we truly want what’s best for the world’s wildlife then, in my opinion, zoos are not the answer.’