There was a time not that very long ago in sunny England when you could buy a lion cub in Harrods for the very reasonable sum of 250 guineas.
Two young ex-pat Aussies, John Rendell and Ace Bourke, decided to give it a try and took one home as a pet to their furniture store in Chelsea’s Kings Road. It was 1969 and the world was a lot different than it is now.
BORN NOT FREE
The lion’s name was Christian and he came from a defunct zoo in Devon, in the south west of England. He had been born in captivity and was quite tame. He had a placid and gentle nature and took to sunning himself in the front window of their shop.
At night he slept in the basement with a litter tray, which he unfailingly used.
A local vicar allowed John and Ace to exercise him in a graveyard, and he became a local celebrity, traveling around London in the back of their Bentley and even featuring in an advertising campaign for a local fashion store. They did a roaring trade.
KENYA HELP US OUT?
But after a year Christian had grown a mane and was the size of a … well, a fully grown lion. They couldn’t keep him much longer. And he cost a fortune to feed.
Then two actors, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, happened to come into their shop. They had recently filmed Born Free, the story of a lioness raised in captivity and successfully reintroduced into the wild in Kenya.
John and Ace discussed their own lion problem with them, and they suggested they get in touch with conservationist George Adamson and his wife Joy, on whose work the film was based.
Perhaps George could help Christian begin a new life in the Kenyan bush?
FROM HOUSE TRAINED TO KING OF THE VELDT
So in 1972, accompanied by John and Ace, Christian was flown in a specially designed crate from London to Nairobi. They took a smaller plane to Adamson’s base at Kora.
They had to drive the last leg to Adamson’s camp in a Landrover. On the way Adamson had to stop to allow Christian to answer a call of nature. The lion hopped out, did what he had to do, and then jumped back in again.
Adamson was astonished.
They left Christian with Adamson, as planned, and two years later he wrote to them to say the lion had made a successful transition to life in the wild, and now had his own pride. They wrote back, saying said they would like to come and say goodbye one last time.
Adamson told them they were wasting their time. The lion was living wild now and besides, he had not been seen for nine months.
But the day before they flew in to Kora, he suddenly reappeared, with his females and cubs in tow.
The two Australians set off into the bush to look for him, taking cameras with them to film the reunion. As you see in the film, he starts moving towards them as soon as he sees them. He bounds the last ten paces.
THE MOMENT OF MADNESS
It appears a moment of madness. After all, this is now a wild animal, 250 kilometres of lean muscle, one of nature’s finest killing machines. They are two unarmed humans venturing onto his territory, near his cubs.
What is he about to do? Does he really remember them?
See for yourself.
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