Interview with Virginia McKenna

Virginia McKenna with ‘Girl’ in the 1966 Film – Born Free

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’.

  • Portrait of Virginia McKenna by Andy Gotts

    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. “

25 thoughts on “Interview with Virginia McKenna

  1. I was up to check on something (it’s not quite 5 a.m. here) and couldn’t wait to read your interview of Virginia McKenna. (I admit that when first you mentioned the upcoming interview, I was thinking of Joy Adamson, and finally sorted out that Virginia played her in the movie, Born Free.)

    What an inspiring, impassioned woman! The work she has done is amazing. How gratifying that Prince Albert’s attitude along with Virginia and her colleagues’ persistence, has improved the living conditions in Monaco Zoo. Further, the story of Pole Pole the elephant is heart-wrenching, and hopefully the London Zoo learned from that experience.

    Thank you, as always, for continuing to open our eyes to the needs of animals and our planet, Joanna, and thank you so much, Virginia, for this interview.

    • Isn’t it inspiring what Virginia and her late husband have achieved for animal welfare and conservation, Beth?

      As you know, I am not a fan of zoos, but I was thrilled when I started to read of the improvements brought to my local zoo, here in Monaco. Prince Albert is very active worldwide also in a number of ecological projects.

      The amazing naturalist, Joy Adamson, died in 1980. I wish I had asked Virginia what it was like to meet her, as I am sure Joy must have been involved in some way in the conversion of her book into a film!

  2. I have been looking forward to this post, and it was wonderful! What a motivated, caring, inspirational woman Virginia is, and how much she and her entire family have done for animal welfare. If only everyone was as sensitive to all living creatures! Thanks for a terrific, informative post.

    P.S. I remember seeing Born Free on TV when I was little – one of the few things my mom let me watch – and it was an amazing and unforgettable film!

    • Susanna, even thinking about the film, BORN FREE, makes me emotional. It touched so many lives. An author just wrote on my Facebook page that watching the film was what inspired her brother to become a wildlife manager!

  3. Incredible post! Thanks Virginia for the challenging, passionate work that you do and to you Joanna for being here in cyberspace to remind us all of the work that is being done daily by the heroes of this world.

  4. Thank you to Virginia – for your compassion and caring. You have made a difference in this life and for our world. Born Free touched my life when I was 12. I cried when I read the books and saw your movie. Thank you to you and Bill for your work. Thank you, Joanna for putting this together.

    • Thank you for commenting, Laura Anne. Testimonies such as Virginia’s make me want to work to leave some positive mark on this world!

  5. I can see now that although the animal-aid work people do is profoundly rewarding there is considerably more pain and sorrow involved. Virginia ‘s evident strength is to transform that into formidable motivation, to persevere and communicate this to others. Thank you both for this wonderful interview -looks like I’ll be watching my Travers/McKenna video collection again soon, and getting myself a copy of Virginia’s new book – love the title!

    • I shall be buying the book (once I have moved, too!). Pull out those videos and a box of kleenex, Julie! I remember you said you Loved Ring of Bright Water a lot!

  6. It is amazing the work the Viriginia and Bill have done on behalf of neglected animals worldwide. Virginia, you made me wonder about zoos and what it does emotionally to the animals. Although we have the wonderful Columbus Zoo with Jack Hannah, and it supports many rehabilitation programs it is involved in — it still made me wonder what is best for the animal. I appreciated hearing all that you have done in your life to advocate for the animals of our planet. It sounds like a real family affair. I have a great respect for the Born Free Foundtion, even more after this interview. Your life work is inspiring. Want to read her book. Born Free will always remain a favorite movie in our home. Your tips for children and pets is important for all of us to hear. Thank you Virginia and Joanna for such a moving interview.

    • Thank you, Pat. I loved to hear about how all the family has been involved in saving many animals lives and giving them a brighter future. Pets are such a great way to start to teach children about our responsibility towards animals, but also then incredible joy these relationships can bring us. Jack Hannah does do a great work, Pat.

  7. Oh my goodness it was so thrilling to read this interview. I was 10 when Born Free came out and I felt so lucky to go and see it. I loved everything about the movie and I just loved Virginia’s portrayal of Joy Adamson. I wanted to be her. I learned to really love animals from that movie (and Ring of Bright Water which I loved as well). She has certainly lived a most inspiring life. Thanks Joanna for such a wonderful interview.

  8. Wow! We have a membership to our local zoo (The Washington Park Zoo in Portland). I always felt good about it, feeling like part of my membership is going to conservation. We even purchased the slightly more expensive patron membership to give a little more. My young children love going to the zoo, but now I’m not so sure we made the right choice.

    • Hannah, I have read a lot about zoos, and the US does have some very well run zoos. For me the only really positive role a zoo can have is in its conservation programs. I would do some research and see what is happening at Washington zoo as it may be that your support is funding some fantastic species preservation projects!

  9. How wonderful! I love this. I had a great love for animals at a very young age too. In fact, the first thing I wanted to “be” was a veterinarian. I’m so glad you shared this. Wonderful interview. So many great things!

  10. It’s amazing to have an interview like this on your blog, Joanna. Thank you so much! I remember the movie Born Free it was a tear jerker. It is lovely to see people devoting their life to protect animals.

  11. It was such an honor for me to have Virginia on my blog, Catherine. She is such an example to us of the difference we can make in promoting animal welfare and protection. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Oh my what an honour to Interview Virginia, Joanna! I have always loved lions and loved drawing them as a kid especially after I had seen Born Free, such a moving film. We have what’s known as Zion Wildlife Gardens here just north of our city, a big cat reserve. They are such majestic animals! Thankyou for such a lovely interview with Virginia.

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