Virginia McKenna OBE is best remembered for her 1966 role as Joy Adamson in the true-life film Born Free. It was not only a huge success at the box office but a life changing experience for her and her late husband Bill Travers MBE, who co-starred with her.
Virginia told viewers of Rotary’s togetherTalks how the experience led them to become active supporters for wild animal rights as well as the protection of their natural habitat.
Born Free told the true story of conservationists Joy and George Adamson who rescued a lioness cub called Elsa and successfully returned her to the wild.
Virginia and Bill went on to make a number of wildlife films together, including in 1969 An Elephant Called Slowly with an elephant calf called Pole Pole. When filming was over, Pole Pole was gifted to London Zoo by the Kenyan government.
Virginia said she and Bill did everything they could to prevent this, but Pole Pole was sent to London. In 1982, Virginia and Bill went to visit Pole Pole at the zoo, who, in clear distress, remembered Virginia and Bill and stretched out her trunk to reach them.
Virginia told togetherTalks how they launched a campaign to give Pole Pole a better life but in 1983, aged 16, Pole Pole died. Determined that her death would not be in vain, in 1984, Virginia, Bill and their eldest son Will launched Zoo Check – the charity that has evolved into the animal welfare and conservation charity the Born Free Foundation.
Virginia said: “Her death was the beginning of our new life. And we started our little charity, with just a few of us around the kitchen table here at home, called Zoo Check and our main purpose was to look into captive wild animals in zoos and that’s what I am passionate about until this very day.”
Today, Will Travers OBE is Born Free’s Executive President and Virginia continues to support as a Trustee of the charity. The organisation works to stop individual wild animal suffering, protect threatened species, promote compassionate conservation, help local communities co-exist with wild animals, and keep wildlife in the wild.
Either, we will decide to engage forward gear again and go back to business as usual and go over the edge of the cliff, or we will engage reverse and rethink our relationship with nature.”
Virginia and Will’s concern for the well-being of wild animals in captivity has grown even stronger over time. At the start of togetherTalks, they shared a short video called “Creature Discomforts – Life in Lockdown” with animal animations using the real voices of people interviewed about their experiences of living under lockdown, bringing the plight of animals in captivity sharply into focus.
Virginia and Will said that during this unprecedented time of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is even more critical that we understand the ever-increasing dangers to our wildlife: “As we struggle with COVID-19, the natural world is under threat. It is time to fight back,” they said.
Will told togetherTalks: “What the pandemic has done is it sort of caused us all to pause. The world has changed dramatically in the last few months or so.”
“But if I have to look for one silver lining, it is that we have been given the opportunity, and it’s the last chance saloon by the way, to rethink our relationship with nature.”
“Either, we will decide to engage forward gear again and go back to business as usual and go over the edge of the cliff, or we will engage reverse and rethink our relationship with nature and realise that unless we protect it and protect all the parts of nature that we are as doomed as all the other species.”
As we struggle with COVID-19, the natural world is under threat. It is time to fight back.”
He ended togetherTalks by saying: “I would love for Born Free to work with amazing Rotary, all the wonderful Rotarians around the world, to protect and conserve endangered species and their environment. And thank you Rotary for making that (the environment) a pillar of your activities going forward.”
Finally, he added: “As a sort of thank you from us to you, if Rotarians or anyone else wants to go to our website and buy something lovely for Christmas as a gift, when you get to the checkout, put in BORNFREEROTARY, then you get 10% off and thank you so much for your support.”
togetherTalks Series 2
Series 2 of togetherTalks has covered a range of topics, from promoting peace to social enterprise. Book your place for upcoming events by visiting our Eventbrite page or catch up on-demand on our YouTube channel.