I first discovered Virginia McKenna and her wonderful husband, Bill Travers, through watching the 1969 film Ring of Bright Water, around the age of ten. It is a scenically beautiful and moving film about a river otter, set in the Hebrides. Soon after I saw Born Free, about the raising and releasing into the wild of the lion cub, Elsa, in Kenya. I confess I would probably put these as childhood favorites, even above the Sound of Music!! I have copies of both films and still watch them and cry every single time. During my years of living in Africa I had the privilege of seeing lions and many other animals in their natural habitat and this truly set me on a personal path of active involvement in animal conservation. As readers of this blog will know, the Born Free organization is one I regularly promote, so you can imagine my excitement when I received a prompt affirmative reply from Virginia to my request for this interview. She is truly one of my heroes in the world of animal advocacy.
- At what age did you develop an interest in animals?
[VMK] From a very early age – four years old, I lived with my father and he always had dogs and cats in the house. And some exotic animals which, in those far distant days, I didn’t understand that this was totally unacceptable.
- The Monaco zoo is local to me, please can you tell us about your battle for the animals in the zoo here?
[VMK] It took several years to make a break through regarding Monaco Zoo. We had been trying to reach Prince Rainier and, in fact, had organised a significant letter-writing campaign but he was unwilling to meet and some packets of letters I had sent him were returned. At that time there were several large animals, including a lion and a white tiger, and the primates were depressing to see.
When Prince Albert succeeded his father it was a very different situation. He is sensitive to the environment and wildlife and, when I went to Monaco to meet him, he asked me if I could find a home for the three leopards in the zoo. I was overjoyed, and we took them to our rescue centre at Shamwari in South Africa. (JDM – I am thrilled with Prince Albert’s genuine environmental concern and action).
- How did making the movie Born Free impact you and your husband?
[VMK] Making ‘Born Free’ was life-changing for my late husband Bill Travers and myself. He immediately began a new career as an independent documentary film maker, winning a nomination for his film ‘Bloody Ivory’.
What prompted you to set up the organization Born Free and what is its main focus?
[VMK] In 1984 we started our charity Zoo Check. (The name was changed in 1991 to the Born Free Foundation). One of Bill’s films, which he made with James Hill, the Director of Born Free, was a story about a group of elephants. There was a little 2 year old, torn from her wild family as a gift to London Zoo, and we heard she was in the trappers’ yard in Nairobi. We got permission to have her in our film. At the end of the 6 weeks filming we asked if we could buy her so she could be eventually returned to the wild with other ‘orphans’ in Tsavo National Park, where David and Daphne Sheldrick began their ground-breaking work with elephants. The answer was yes, but another little elephant would have to be caught. It was one of the most painful decisions we ever had to make, but another one? No. Pole Pole came to London Zoo.
The story is too long to tell here, but when – finally – the zoo agreed she could go to Whipsnade where there were other elephants (in London she was alone), she collapsed in her travelling crate. A week later they examined her under anaesthetic as she had hurt her leg. She didn’t revive. They said she had lost the will to live. No surprise there. Her death was the catalyst. We decided we had to look into the living conditions of wild animals in zoos. That was the main focus of our work. Today our work covers other issues as well, but Zoo Check is still one of the most important projects.
- What place, if any, do you see for zoos in promoting animal welfare and educating children?
[VMK] Do zoos educate? Well, you can see what an animal looks like, but as it is removed from its natural environment it is not a fulfilled animal. It is a shadow of itself. Some zoos provide more sympathetic and stimulating enclosures, but they are in the minority. We have just completed a survey of 200 zoos in 20 EU countries and a horrifying number have little or no ‘welfare’ and certainly no education. I suggest wildlife documentaries do a better job.
- What project(s) are you working on right now?
[VMK] We have just released two dolphins in Turkey back to the wild. This project has taken almost 2 years, but provided us all with a rare moment of joy. We are monitoring their progress and hope they cope well with their regained freedom – keeping dolphins in captivity should never be permitted. Quite apart from the sterile environment and the training to do tricks and all the rest, people forget the horrors of the capture.
- Virginia, how did you become involved in the Christian the Lion project?
[VMK] Christian the lion, bought at Harrods as a small cub and returned to the wild in Kenya was the subject of one of Bill’s documentaries. The clip on YouTube was taken from the film he made and I have always felt very disappointed that this has not been adequately recognised. Quite by chance he went into the London furniture shop, Sophistocat, to buy a desk. The two young Australians who worked there, recognised him, and took him downstairs to see Christian. The lion was getting too big to keep in the shop and they didn’t want him to go to a zoo. They asked Bill if he had any ideas.
It was Bill who got permission from the Kenyan Government to take him there, who, with George Adamson, found the area that was suitable for the rehabilitation, who decided to make a documentary about the whole story (recreating the scene where he first saw Christian as that was a surprise!), and he who produced and co-wrote the film with James Hill (who directed Born Free). It was the unique and wonderful George who taught Christian to lead a wild, independent life. The clip is, of course, wonderful – but more so when you see the whole story. (We sell the DVD at Born Free).
Christian the Lion – Youtube Clip (JDM I hope the clip simply whets your appetite for the full DVD!)
- What books about animals touched you as a child?
[VMK] As a young child I was very moved by ‘Black Beauty’ by Anna Sewell and ‘Animals I have Known’ by Ernest Thompson Seton.
- Are any of your children involved in animal conservation?
My eldest son, Will Travers, is the CEO of the Born Free Foundation. He began it all with us in 1984. My daughter lives in Australia and has tried to support campaigns against circuses and live animal export. My other sons are very supportive. My youngest son, Dan, is a diver and helped on the dolphin release project.
- What are some of the best ways kids can become involved in caring for mistreated, endangered and threatened animals?
[VMK] It is quite hard for children, especially in towns and cities, to get involved with caring for wild animals. There are some rescue centres which do good work helping wounded and orphaned British wildlife – and there are some marvellous centres in the educational field, like Aigas in Scotland. But perhaps – I would suggest – start at home. Learn how to care for dogs and cats – but please no birds in cages! If you have rabbits make sure they have a big pen to run around in – although leaving rabbits to be wild is obviously best. Whatever the animal, respect and compassion are the key. Understand the species and learn to understand the individual – you are in charge and they deserve that.
Virginia, thank you so much for sharing your passion and proactive concern for the animal cohabitants of our planet. Virginia is also an author, and signed copies of her autobiography, ‘The Life in my Years”, are available from the Born Free Website. “In her thought-provoking book, Virginia – recently voted one of the most inspirational people of all time in a Daily Telegraph poll – gives a fascinating insight into her life as an acclaimed actress and wildlife crusader. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to enjoy her remarkable story. Discover the heart-rending truth behind why she and her husband Bill Travers were inspired to launch our wildlife charity – the Born Free Foundation. “