One of Britain’s finest actors, Virginia McKenna has also created an incredible legacy as one of the most effective animal welfare campaigners in the world.
One of her most notable roles was as conservationist Joy Adamson in the 1966 film Born Free, about Elsa the orphaned lion cub’s return to the wild, for which she received a Golden Globe.
Making the film in Africa with her husband, actor Bill Travers, instilled in them a passion for conservation and a belief that animals belong in their natural environment. But it was the death of Pole Pole the elephant in 1984 that inspired her to set up the organisation that would become the Born Free Foundation.
Virginia and Bill had worked with Pole Pole on a 1969 film called An Elephant Called Slowly. The elephant had been pledged by the Kenyan government to the Queen as a gift. Although the couple fought to have the animal reunited with her family, Pole Pole ended up in London Zoo. When they visited her, Pole Pole trumpeted and greeted the actors by stretching her trunk across the moat that separated them.
As a result of their campaigning she was about to be taken to Whipsnade safari park, but she died before she could be taken to her new home.
Stirred by the death of Pole Pole, Virginia and Bill set up an organisation called Zoo Check. She said: “I was determined Pole Pole would not die in vain. How can it be right to drag animals away from their families in their homelands and put them into a totally alien environment, where they become so damaged by captivity?”
Zoo Check became the Born Free Foundation, which carries out animal welfare, conservation and public awareness campaigns to prevent animal abuse and keep wildlife in its natural habitat. Today it is a global charity with 100 employees worldwide. It has a magnificent record for rescuing animals from appalling conditions and rehoming them in sanctuaries.
The organisation’s core mission remains the abolition of zoos, and it has carried out many investigations into zoos around Europe. Virginia says she is still haunted by the scenes she has witnessed of emaciated lions banging their heads in despair against the walls and animals freezing to death.
The charity rehomes them in spacious sanctuaries where they are given lifetime specialist care. The sanctuaries are constructed inside policed game reserves to ensure the animals are safe and protected.
The organisation also fights to protect dozens of species in their natural habitats through conservation projects.
Now 82, Virginia still campaigns tirelessly to change laws, shut down bad zoos and free tortured animals.
And she says she is as determined as ever to right the wrongs done by humans to wild animals. Virginia, who received an OBE in 2003, said: “There is more threat to wild animals today than ever. Poaching, hunting, overfishing, poisoning, trapping, reduction of habitat, traditional Chinese medicine, climate change, capturing for zoos and circuses – the list is endless. Man’s insatiable need to own, to manipulate, to have everything his own way is wrecking the balance of nature.
“Some may say I see nature through ‘rose-tinted glasses’. I refute that. I am a realist, and I believe that what we are doing to wild places and wild animals is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
“Some say nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’. That is one way of putting it. I call it survival. Sadly humans, without the survival element, have the reddest and sharpest teeth and claws of all.”