The Actual Born Free


Everyone above a certain age knows the story of little orphan Elsa the lioness, raised by saintly George and Joy Adamson in Kenya, who taught her how to hunt and then successfully released her back into the wild. This heart-warming episode of animal rescue was the subject of Joy’s 1960 book, Born Free that sold five million copies in 27 languages and was followed by the 1966 film, providing the world’s popular Hollywood version of the story.

The story dramatically transformed the world’s view of African wildlife, at the time typified by the magnificent Armand and Michaela Denis, an example of whose work is here.   

It was another world back then. In those days, even the young Saint David Attenborough was roaming the world in the rather less saintly activity of abducting animals from the wild for London Zoo in Zoo Quest. After Born Free, all wild animals would increasingly have human names and emotions. Today, the practice is widespread and becoming deceitful

In the film Born Free, Joy Adamson was played by Virginia McKenna OBE (The Cruel Sea, A Town Like Alice, Carve Her Name With Pride) an actress who stirred far more male loins than male lions at the time (g-r-r-r), while George was played by Virginia’s handsome and brave ex Gurka Rifles and SOE real husband, Bill Travers MBE, both people Britain can undoubtedly be proud of.  Born Free movie was a kind of gentle and idyllic Good Life, set in the African bush.

And, of course, it was pure Hollywood fantasy.  In reality, Elsa was a little orphan cub because George shot her mother! The real Adamsons sent Elsa’s two sisters to a zoo in Rotterdam – so much for living free. For a start, George Adamson wasn’t really the sage, bearded conservationist of popular imagination; he was a colonial Mr Bean, born in India and sent to his dad’s coffee plantation in Kenya, where he was bloody hopeless. According to The Big Conservation Lie by Kenyans John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada,  George:

killed animals for fun, sold ivory, and tried to organise hunting safaris. He tried and failed in selling goats, running a mail service, farming beeswax and honey, labouring on a sisal plantation, barman, gold prospector and Mau-Mau fighter.  He took a job as a locust control officer but was sacked and failed in road construction because it was too hard”

His first 20 years in Kenya were a string of abject failures and he took a cushy job “in the game department in 1938 to escape them. He was lazy and did more fundraising than conservation. He was a failure both in life and as a conservationist and relied on the generosity of others. His fame was largely as a result of his own self-aggrandising”.  Wikipedia, confirms that he worked at a series of jobs, which included time as a gold prospector, goat trader and professional safari hunter. In short, he was one of those lovable characters, sons of the Empire who, despite the fact that he couldn’t organise a piss-up in a pub, never gave up and went on to stumble by serendipitous chance into the kind of glorious global popularity that few have the good fortune to fall into. 

George’s skill in love was apparently no better than in everything else – he was more victim than lover when he was pounced on by Joy.  Joy originally married a bloke called Viktor in her native Austria before WW2 and Viktor, being Jewish, decided they should move to Africa to avoid the vile attentions of the uni-testicular Austrian painter with a Chaplin moustache and a fondness for goose-stepping and vegetarianism.  Sent ahead alone by sea, she hooked up with a fellow passenger, Peter Bally, and promptly divorced poor old Viktor on his arrival in Kenya.  A couple of years later, while on safari with Peter, she got khaki-fever for George Adamson and so dumped Pete, too.  

George and Joy married in 1944. She was an accomplished artist of portraits and flowers, with an artist’s fiery temperament to match; a pretty wild lady for her time who was probably more dangerous than the lions and regularly enjoyed a game of hide-the-sausage on the side, upsetting hubby George no doubt. Like many mercurial female artists, this was the sort of woman a normal man should only approach in a suit of armour or with a whip and a chair (and talking of chairs, Joy had one covered in lion skin!). She overwhelmed poor old bumbling George and the marriage turned violent; apparently the unfortunate bloke often needed a stiff drink after their encounters. 

Although in Africa, if Joy ever knelt it was allegedly only to aim and fire her pistol at any black staff who annoyed her. She had to be forcefully persuaded not to wear her favourite leopard skin coat to a conservation conference. Today’s tabloids would have loved her. She was wonderfully mad, perhaps because of cold parenting and the inability to have children as a result of a backstreet abortion when she was stuck up the duff early in life. George later said in an interview that they never divorced “in order to maintain their public standing and fame”. Perhaps their wild marriage would have made a much more entertaining film. Uncyclopedia describes her amusingly as “a well known kitty fiddler and gin drinker”.

Still, the film was made and the habit of naming every charismatic African animal, started by Walt Disney, now developed into a disease. Joy, childless after a few miscarriages and perhaps borderline mad in her unsuccessful search for love and motherhood, found in the imprinted lioness Elsa a receptacle for her overpowering instinct to be wife and lover (why else would she enjoy kisses and finger-sucking from a lion with “overpowering halitosis” according to Sir David Attenborough) and so the story began.  

Less well known is the fact that George and Joy apparently “trained” Elsa to become wild by needlessly wounding animals so Elsa could practice killing. Peta and the RSPCA please take note, particularly the incident where Elsa held a buffalo’s head under water to half drown it, then proceeded to tear off its family jewels still alive, while Nuru, one of their African “boys” sawed through the poor creature’s throat. Then George shot it.  Charming. (Born Free page 119).

They were eventually forced to release Elsa because she mauled them and unsurprisingly took a lion’s proper interest in the local farmers’ animals. As for training to hunt, even domestic cats, after thousands of generations, still retain the instinct to kill and lions are no different. Given available prey, they will kill, and besides, wild lions steal half their food from other predators.  Cats of all sizes simply turn feral when released into the wild (ask any Australian)  The only real danger to released lions comes from other lions because more than half of all lions in the wild are actually killed by other lions.

Elsa, when returned to the wild, had three cubs and died of a tick bite in 1961. Her cubs then made a nuisance of themselves in turn, killing the local farmers’ stock, and when the locals threatened to kill them, they were banished to the Serengeti, never to be seen again.

Eventually, the Kenyan authorities, totally pissed off with all this silly nonsense of eccentrics messing about with lions, killing animals to feed them, complaints from neighbours, mucking about in the nation’s reserves, plus the grave danger of releasing lions that have lost their fear of humans (and are thus potential man eaters) put a stop to the whole thing.  So ended a wonderfully mad episode in the life of a couple of colourful, nutty colonials whose lives were far more mercurial and interesting than the cuddly vanilla depiction of them in the film.

Their contribution to real lion conservation was non-existent and it would have ended there except for the book and film.  “Elsa” in the film was actually played by a veritable herd of twenty seven lions of all ages, gathered from far and wide, and most of them were sent to zoos afterwards. Twenty-seven captive lions to make a movie called Born Free? You have to love Hollywood.   

George, however, kept two of the film lions and tried to repeat the pointless Elsa enterprise by “rehabilitating” them, but then one of them, Boy, unfortunately suddenly remembered how to be a wild lion and promptly killed and ate one of the camp workers, so George had to shoot it. He also had to shoot another of his lions, Suleiman, who tried to kill him. You couldn’t make this stuff up….

While making the movie, the McKenna/Travis couple caught on to the potential of wildlife and, like any other enterprising actor folk, tried to repeat the success with otters in A Ring of Bright Water and elephants in An Elephant called Slowly. The unfortunate baby elephant in that movie, Pole-pole, ended up dead in a zoo, so the couple started a wildlife foundation called Zoo Check that became today’s Born Free Foundation, with Virginia (recently 90) and currently a Trustee and Will (her son) Executive President (Bill having died in 1994). Significantly, its income in 2019 was £5.3M according to the Charity Commission.  The madness and cruelty are long forgotten.  Kerching.

So, time to sing!  All together now,  (remember the Born Free tune):

Truth free

Two nutters in Kenya

Ol’ George was a failure

And Joy was quite mad

I was born free

With two lovely sisters

Then George shot our mummy

They went to a zoo

They’re free 

But I was an orphan

The Adamsons raised me

And raised money too.

Nowt’s free

Not the books nor the movie

Nor the Born Free Foundation

Making five mil a year……la, la, la……

With apologies to John Barry, Don Black and Matt Monro.

And that, Dear Reader, is the story of how a couple of wonderfully mad people in far-off Africa ended up becoming part of the modern industry of eco-chugging.  And, had the Born Free Foundation stayed rescuing a few lions, they would have been an amusing footnote in Colonial history, a handy receptacle for the generous bequests of kindly old ladies who smell of cat wee and an unending source of infantile lion trivia.  

Instead, Born Free Foundation is now a modern eco-super-chugger, a donations harvester of industrial proportion, it’s simple roots in the bush, like Elsa, long gone. Unlike Kenya’s simple safari tents of the 1960’s, today you can visit their South African “sanctuary” at Shamwari for £1000 a night or perhaps send a few of your hard-earned shekels to them every month in order to end all animal injustice and suffering in the world by the simple expedient of paying Born Free to spread head-rotting animal rights folly across the globe.  Today, they deal not just in lions but every animal that shows up on the public’s charisma radar.

Like all modern eco-leeches, it is skilled in double-speak. Here is their ironic trustee’s statement :

’Fake news’ is a concept that is increasingly recognised, with an almost accepted position. It has no place at Born Free. The charity has an integrity and authority in our statements, and our reporting of the truth.” 

Additionally, Born Free USA says, in a piece entitled “Follow the money”, that it “supports Compassionate Conservation, which involves, among other things, taking into meaningful consideration the needs, concerns, and well-being of local human populations. Not only should wildlife conservation efforts not harm human populations, they should ideally help by providing people with more advantageous economic opportunities”.  Ahhh, they help the locals, too.  Wonderful.  

However, Born Free UK, today ensnared by animal rights, then strongly refutes the fact that trophy hunting supports conservation or local communities: ”Trophy hunting proponents claim their activities somehow promote wildlife conservation, by providing jobs and resources for local communities who will then value and protect the wildlife, and by funding conservation programmes directly. However, the evidence shows that hardly any of the revenues from trophy hunting ever reach local people or parks authorities, with corrupt officials and trophy outfitters (often based outside the country in which the hunts take place) taking most of the spoils”.  

Evidence? If the above is the truth, please explain why African Community leaders write letters asking UK organisations and celebs and even the Times not to campaign against trophy hunting because bans hurt rural Africans who look upon trophy hunting as a normal and important economic activity and entitlement to one of their most sustainable resources. Even the Economist (hardly a red-neck huntin’ and fishin’ publication) can shed some light, Born Free.

In fact, if you take Born Free’s advice and follow their money, you find that in the three years 2016, 2017 and 2018, Born Free bunged a staggering €650,000 a year at the EU in political lobbying. And you innocently thought that, apart from a free fluffy toy made by desperate Far East sweat, your £3 a month went to help rescue “Harry the starving, one-eyed  XXXXX* from an abusive East European hell-hole, and make him happy in his new forever home” or similar emetic rubbish (*please fill in your own favourite animal victim fantasy). 

So, how did the endearing story of a lion with grossly smelly breath and a mad Austrian cat-lady become such an affluent modern money fountain flinging cash at the EU?  Well, dear reader, peer inside it. Today, apart from its links to the Goldsmith brothers (Boris’ chums at DEFRA),  Born Free’s Head of Policy is no other than the notorious industrial fish farm doctor turned animal rights (AR) fundamentalist Dr Fishvet Jones, who tours the world injecting intellectual ARsist folly and flatulence into otherwise serious major events in the Conservation and Field Management of wildlife, from rhinos and elephants in Africa to badgers and wild boar in the UK.   

It gets worse. Alongside him, hiding safely behind Born Free’s soft and cuddly exterior, their British Wildlife Advocate & Policy Advisor is none other than that oily little rabble-rousing shit-stirrer Dominic Dyer, former boss of the Badger Trust, another ARsist moron and fundamental jelly-head, notorious for calling in (in the nicest possible way, of course) the AR rent-a-mob to disrupt otherwise legal pest control and activities.  He co-wrote a book with Pinocchio Packham about the politics of the badger cull. He is a prominent ear whisperer to Carrie Antoinette (Boris the PM’s missus), and together, with their chums they are suspected of getting Boris to halt the scientific badger cull. Apparently, Carrie’s Art History and Theatre Studies Degree plus Dominic Dyer’s zero academic background rate much higher than proper Field Trials and Science in the UK Government these days. 

Joy and George Adamson were lovable eccentrics. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers were a beautiful couple. But these two latter rodents inside the core of Born Free Foundation are another ominous thing altogether. Born Free is now like an attractive woman with a rather nasty STD.  

It all started so innocently. Poor old Joy and George Adamson and even Elsa, the much put-upon lion, must be rotating in mortification.  Their wild adventure has been abducted from Africa and is now forced into urban slavery, to perform for money in the AR circus.

John Nash grew up in West Cornwall and was a £10 pom to Johannesburg in the early 1960’s. He started well in construction project management, mainly high rise buildings but it wasn’t really Africa, so he went bush, prospecting and trading around the murkier bits of the bottom half of the continent. Now retired back in Cornwall among all the other evil old pirates. His interests are still sustainable resources, wildlife management and the utilitarian needs of rural Africa.