Meet Virginia McKenna

By Shubhobroto Ghosh

As the star of ‘Born Free’, Virginia McKenna portrayed the character of Joy Adamson to demonstrate the relationship between her and her husband, George Adamson, with Elsa, a lioness. Together with her co-star, Bill Travers, she founded Zoo Check in 1984, an organisation that has now grown into the Born Free Foundation, a leading voice for wild animals in captivity in zoos and circuses. Virginia McKenna was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her contribution to performing arts and conservation in 2004. On the 35th anniversary of the Born Free Foundation in 2019, she speaks to author and journalist Shubhobroto Ghosh at the Foundation’s headquarters in Horsham, England, to commemorate the occasion.

Founded by Virginia McKenna, the Born Free Foundation focusses on field conservation, rescue and care of captive wildlife, education and mitigation of the wildlife trade.
Photo: Shubhobroto Ghosh

Tell us a little about the Born Free Foundation’s journey?

One can only be very grateful to the people who started the organisation with my husband Bill, our eldest son Will and myself, in 1984 as Zoo Check, a handful of whom are still with us. We have been lucky to have a growing number of people who share our core philosophy that wild creatures should not be kept captive.

Today, along with our partners at the Kenya Wildlife Service, Born Free Foundation operates the Pride of Meru programme to protect wild lions and preserve the unique heritage of Meru National Park, Kenya. It involves tracking and monitoring lions and working with communities to nurture tolerance and implement mitigation measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Another key priority is education, and that’s where we work closely with the Kanjoo School (with 800 children) as one of a growing number of partner schools.

The Born Free Foundation and our friends and supporters have helped with building senior classrooms, commissioning a science lab, a kitchen, a playground and providing books. As a result, more children have remained in school and been able to learn about coexistence and the importance of their wild neighbours. All these developments are in my thoughts today.

What about Zoo Check?

My husband Bill and I had worked with an African elephant named Pole Pole for the film ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ in 1968. Prior to filming, she had been captured by the authorities as a gift to the London Zoo and after the film was complete, we attempted to have her be given to Daphne and David Sheldrick and, ultimately, returned to the wild. Unfortunately, we were told that even if we were successful, the Kenyan government would capture another elephant for the London Zoo. This was unthinkable, so she returned to the zoo.

Photo Courtesy: Columbia Pictures

Stills from ‘Born Free’, in which Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers portrayed naturalists Joy and George Adamson. The impact of the experience led them to fight against the captivity of wildlife and become conservation campaigners.
Photo Courtesy: Born Free Foundation

In 1982, Bill and I went to visit Pole Pole. Alone and in clear distress, she remembered us and put out her trunk to touch our outstretched hands. It was one of the most agonising moments that I can remember. Mixed up with the memories of the joy of being with her in Africa and our unique friendship with her, I have never really lost that terrible sense of guilt that we let her down. We launched a campaign to give Pole Pole a better life. The wonderful Daphne Sheldrick offered to take her because she was rearing two young orphan elephants at the time but London Zoo refused. We also had the chance for her to be rehabilitated in a sanctuary in southern Africa but the zoo turned down this suggestion as well. In 1983, London Zoo said they would send her to Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire where she could be among other elephants. However, kept in her travelling crate for several hours, she collapsed and was subsequently put down. She was just a teenager.

Determined that her death would not be in vain, on March 19, 1984, Bill, Will and I launched Zoo Check as a challenge to the zoo ethic, which relegated animals to a captive world for lifetime imprisonment, a world without a soul.

And how did Zoo Check transition to the Born Free Foundation?

Captivity gives animals no choice – about what to eat, what to do, where to live, who to live with. It is true that the wild is not necessarily safe, but it is naïve to think that we can keep wildlife in captivity for their salvation by recreating the wild. Captive animals resemble little more than living trophies collected for amusement or personal pleasure.

We have been able to make the matter of wild animals in captivity a mainstream issue of public interest. People continue to go to zoos out of tradition and habit – indeed as a child my father took me to the zoo. Now our work to raise the issue of wild animals in zoos has created a more informed public, who can critically decide whether to go to the zoo to have a ‘good day out’ – or not. Zoo Check, in essence, has sown a seed in people’s minds to reflect on the plight of captive wild animals and try to understand the reality of life for wild creatures who can never be free.

It was Bill’s idea. Given that we were increasingly getting involved in wild animal protection work in the wild apart from our work in zoos, he felt that a new name was necessary to better reflect this scope of work. Zoo Check transitioned into the Born Free Foundation in 1992.

We still have a very strong anti-captivity component at the Born Free Foundation. It will always be my greatest focus, and I still visit zoos to check on conditions in which wild animals are kept captive. Yes, we do conservation work on behalf of the Born Free Foundation, and we will never give up on highlighting the plight of animals in captivity. For the past 25 years, we have been pressing for the ban on animals in circuses in the U.K. I am glad to say that the government has now promised that this activity will be outlawed in 2020.

Six tigers rescued from the Cross Brothers circus in Kent, England were offered refuge at the Bannerghatta National Park, Karnataka in 1986.
Photo Courtesy: Born Free Foundation

Born Free inevitably highlights the plight of zoo animals.

Yes! Captive wild animals in zoos suffer mentally and physically. If we do not speak for them, who will? Captive wild animals share the same physiological characteristics as those that are free-living. Tragically, in today’s world, animals are still being captured from the wild to cater to the seemingly insatiable appetite of unscrupulous zoos. African elephants are being captured from the wild in Zimbabwe for zoos. All these years later, the issue of wild animals in captivity is still with us, and we will always continue to oppose it.

What are the linkages between the work on captive wildlife and animals in the wild?

It is about educating people about wild animals in all situations, be they wild or captive. I was extremely touched by a question put to me by a nine-year-old boy at Kanjoo School. “Please, miss, why do men kill lions?” Indeed, the answer is inexplicable to me. To appear brave and macho? Maybe to corner a lion in an enclosure and then shoot the helpless creature as they do in canned hunting operations. This despicable activity, that fuels the capture and killing of wild animals, is one powerful illustration of the link between our work on captive wildlife and our work with animals in the wild.

Does your work involve armed intervention to stop wildlife poaching and trade?

Our work against the wildlife trade is hugely important. We work with communities to help tackle this.  We do not provide arms nor do we arm anyone in our team. We believe all life is to be valued – that is the philosophy of the Born Free Foundation.

Tell us something about your work in India.

In 1986, we rescued six tigers from the Cross Brothers circus in Maidstone in Kent, England. The circus owner, a former taxi driver, lacked a proper license for keeping the animals. I was preparing for a trek in Zanskar in India when I met Ramkrishna Hegde, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, whilst he was passing through London. He offered us the Bannerghatta Reserve in his state for rehabilitation of the tigers in a huge enclosure. We took a second set of tigers to Bannerghatta some years later. The tigers King, Royale, Harak and Zeudy were rescued from an Italian circus, Ginny from Limburgse Zoo in Belgium, and Roque from a pet shop in Spain. With Roque’s death in 2018, the saga of the rescued Born Free Foundation tigers came to an end sadly in India. Bannerghatta National Park decided that although they would continue their rescue efforts for big cats from India, they would no longer accept big cats from abroad. However, the facility now offers a home to injured tigers or ‘conflict tigers’ (those that have become a threat to human life) and so I am delighted that, all these years later, it is still helping address the welfare of tigers in need.

One of the six tigers that was rescued from the Cross Brothers circus in 1986, after release in the Bannerghatta National Park, Karnataka. 
Photo Courtesy: Born Free Foundation

How do you compare Virginia McKenna the actress with Virginia McKenna the activist?

I think animals have been a common connecting theme in my performances as an actress and my work as an activist. Actors and activists are both communicators who express their feelings to an audience. As an actress I have been a communicator, a conduit, for other people, playwrights and directors. In my transition from actress to activist, I no longer have the need to remember other people’s words. Today, I can speak freely from my heart about the plight of captive animals that mean so much to me. As an activist, I can draw on the comparisons I see between captive animals and humans and the lives we lead in our increasingly crazy, pressure-cooker world. My enormous gratitude goes to the original Zoo Check team who helped me make the transition and become the campaigner I am today.

What do you think of zoos like the proposed one at Aarey in Mumbai that will be created by cutting forests?

We do not have the right to see everything up close. Nature should be about preserving natural areas and not ‘ticking a box’ to say we have seen everything from penguins to polar bears. Today, we have the most magnificent documentaries that can bring nature to our homes without the need for caging and keeping animals in captivity. If any politician has an ambition to bring polar bears to a city zoo, then I think they ought to think again and work out what really matters in life. My principal opposition to the zoo being proposed in Aarey is that the captive animals they will incarcerate will have no life. Existence for them will become meaningless, and the public will learn very little of any real value.

There is a perennial debate about working for human benefit over that of animals.

Why must there be a choice between helping humans and animals? Animals feel the same emotions as humans. My concerns for animals are based on the same concerns I feel for underprivileged, disenfranchised and marginalised people. I can’t stand the thought of children who cannot go to school, the mother who has to trudge miles a day to collect basic needs such as water, the man who is paid a pittance for his labour and whose work simply makes someone else richer. But does that mean I should not care about the bird in a cage who will never fly? You only have to ask the question, “Why does a bird have wings?” to understand my outrage. Our compassion should be universal and extend to all those who are vulnerable and in need – human and animal.

What are your views on animal products that are obtained by cruelly killing animals?

I am completely against making products for fashion and clothing by killing animals, whether it is wearing fur, leather or silk from silk worms. We do not need these products to satisfy our vanity. We should always choose humane alternatives when it comes to fashion. Cruelty-free silk is available – let’s use it.

And on hybrid animals?

While hybridisation does occur in nature and may be an important part of the process of evolution by natural selection, human manipulation to satisfy the whims of fashion or ego must stop. Examples of human manipulation includes crossing a lion with a tiger to create a liger, or a donkey with a zebra to create a zedonk. Already existing hybrids must of course be treated with compassion and care.

This is how the world is meant to be – where tigers rule wild spaces and thrive. Captive animals resemble little more than living trophies collected for our amusement or personal pleasure, says Virginia McKenna.
Photo: Arpit Kubba

Are we doing enough to deal with our planet’s climate change?

The climate change crisis is fearful and cannot – must not – be denied. Climate change is a reality in the here and now that must be confronted. This will require changes to human behaviour. We must adapt, and do it fast. We cannot leave it up to the next generation – by then it will be too late. The reaction of many young people shows us the way. They see the enormity of the crisis facing humanity and all life on earth. They call on our leaders to take action, not to deny reality and to accelerate measures that will reduce and reverse the processes that are causing the planet to warm up. It is our generation that has caused this potential catastrophe – it is up to us all to do something about it.

What is your message for our readers in India?

Live your life to the full and play a role in a true story. You see, our relationship with George Adamson during the making of the film, ‘Born Free’ was more than a role; it became a profound life experience. It changed our perceptions and caused us to chart a new course for the rest of our lives. When filming finished, Bill, George and I were able to prevent three of the lions used in the film from going to zoos and other captive facilities. Bill started his documentary film career by making The Lions Are Free, the story of those three lions and our filming with Pole Pole eventually led to the formation of Zoo Check. So, if you really believe in something, do not be afraid to be criticised. Be brave. Trust in your own compassion and what you hold to be true.

Bill, Will and I were vilified by the zoo industry when we spoke out on the sad plight facing Pole Pole. We withstood this and deployed the resistance to criticism Bill and I had experienced in our acting careers.

If you believe in doing good, you can always find the space in your busy life to make a positive difference and help all living creatures.

What’s your take on the 11th World Wilderness Congress?

The WILD11 global gathering in Jaipur in March 2020 is timely indeed. I feel that the plight of wild animals has become even more serious, as their habitats are increasingly occupied by people. We so often tend to ignore – or forget – that these fascinating creatures create the world’s wild environments, and without them humans will inhabit a diminished and sterile planet. I very much hope the conference will be well attended. More and more people need to spread the word to ensure there is hope for us all.

Your message for the future?

We have to be humane as well as human beings. We have to be concerned about our actions and the consequences of our actions. We need to respect the individuals that make up non-human species. We must marvel at the wonders of nature, admire the way birds fly, the manner in which lions behave in prides and how mother animals protect their young. Compassion, understanding and selflessness must become the cardinal qualities of human life, integral parts of our hearts and minds. Every human being has the capacity to do great evil, to cause great suffering, to inflict great hardship and to ignore the plight of others. However, by the same token, every human being has the capacity to tap into a limitless well of compassion, to serve the needs of others as well as themselves, break down walls and build bridges between people, with animals and between species. 
My core message for the future of humanity is: respect all creatures. We will destroy the natural world and ourselves if we do not follow a kinder path. We should encourage diversity in life. We inhabit a fascinating world and I tried to encapsulate my views about the world in this poem:

What is the Earth?

A ball in space? A little paradise? 
Planet of melting ice and inner fires? 
Under my hand its surface crumbles.
Crushed underfoot its myriad flowers.
Forests lie trembling under my sword. 
The ocean darkens weeping black tears. 
Death of sweet rivers, death-giving rain, 
Silent and secret, invisible pain. 
A gift from heaven this little world. 
Each bird a jewel, each tree a mother. 
What is the earth? 
A fragile heart.
Tender my touch to save its life – and mine. 

Interview with Dr. Liz Greengrass
Head of Conservation programmes

Photo Courtesy: Born Free Foundation

Dr. Liz Greengrass: We are also working with wild tigers to safeguard their future in India. The Born Free Foundation created the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) of Oxford University in 2005. Today, I manage this project along with our partners in India, including NCSA (Nature Conservation Society Amravati), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Conservation Action Trust (CAT), The Corbett Foundation, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), Satpuda Foundation, and BAAVAN (Bagh, Aap Aur Van). Our consultant experts in this project include Dr. Claudio Sillero Zubiri, Kedar Gore and Raghu Singh Chundawat.

This project is aimed at protecting India’s Satpuda forest region – the largest block of tiger habitat in the country – to provide the best chance for wild tigers to survive, through conservation bursaries, community conflict-prevention activities, population monitoring and tackling wildlife crime. The project involves field research and monitoring, lobbying, human-tiger conflict mitigation measures and environmental education. With less than 4,000 wild tigers left in the wild, the future for this iconic species in its natural habitat is precarious.

On the Indian subcontinent, where the largest tiger population persists, only 11 per cent of their original habitat remains in an increasingly fragmented and often degraded state. Tigers are a conservation dependent species, requiring large contiguous forests with access to prey and water, undisturbed core areas in which to breed and dispersal corridors.

The Satpuda forests of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra offer perhaps the best hope for India’s remaining 2,967 wild tigers (2018 estimate). Constituting several tiger reserves connected by forest corridors, this is the largest viable block of tiger habitat in India. The Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership (SLTP) brings together a network of Indian conservationists working in seven tiger reserves across this very important tiger range – Bori-Satpuda, Kanha, Melghat, Pench MP, Pench Maharashtra, Navegaon-Nagzira and Tadoba-Andhari and habitat corridors linking them.

Through conservation bursaries funded by Born Free Foundation, dedicated NGOs and individuals are implementing a variety of conservation activities to protect tiger habitats, mitigate tiger-human conflict, tackle wildlife crime, monitor tiger populations, raise awareness and improve the livelihoods of people living next to tigers.

One of the principal partners of the Born Free Foundation in the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership are Poonam and Harsh Dhanwatey of TRACT (Tiger Research And Conservation Trust) who have worked closely with local communities to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and improve livelihoods. Also involved is Kishor Rithe, Founder of the Satpuda Foundation, who has spent more than three decades in the forests of Central India working to protect these forests, tigers and other wildlife. As part of the Born Free Foundation’s unique ‘Living with Tigers’ programme, the Satpuda Foundation works with local communities to help them coexist with wildlife, and lobbies the government to ensure that Central India’s diverse but fragile natural landscape is protected. We are working together to tackle the poaching crisis, safeguard tiger habitats and find conservation interventions for communities and wildlife to live together peacefully. Efforts include our dedicated teams of Tiger Ambassadors – local villagers trained to identify signs of tiger presence and take action to avoid conflict. Then there’s our Mobile Education Unit, visiting local schools to teach children about wildlife conservation.

It is hard, committed and long-term work, and we haven’t much time left. The good news is that, together with our Indian partners, we are making progress. In the last 10 years, the tiger population of the Satpuda landscape has increased to approximately 500.

join the conversation