Elsa the Lioness: The Spirit of Born Free on World Lion Day

Image of African Lioness
(Photograph by David Lloyd / davidlloyd.net)

There is a moving moment in the film Born Free, when Elsa the lioness walks across an African savannah towards the couple who hand-reared her. She had spent a week trying to fend for herself in northern Kenya. As she approaches them, they see that their experiment hasn’t worked: She is thin, bloodied and limping.

Joy and George Adamson were attempting to return the lioness they loved to the wild, but her injuries proved to George that she was unable to survive in her natural habitat. She had grown too accustomed to human care. Elsa was, in fact, no longer wild.

“What’s wrong with a zoo anyway?” George asks Joy. “Is freedom so important?”

“Yes!” cries Joy with passion. “She was born free and she has the right to live free!”

The 1964 film was based on the eponymous novel by author Joy Adamson. The book, which spent 13 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list, describes raising Elsa to maturity after she was orphaned as a tiny cub.

Joy’s “clumsy little velvet bag” was a young lioness with “perfect manners” whose paws became damp when she was nervous and who preferred to sleep stretched out on metal-framed camp beds instead of the African earth and who who fell asleep with Joy’s thumb in her mouth even as an adult. For the first few years of her life she and her two sisters lived with George, Joy and a pet rock-hyrax called Pati-Pati, at their Game Warden’s house in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. After her sisters were sent to Rotterdam zoo, Elsa joined Joy and George on safari, travelling across the ancient dry lakebed of the Chalbi desert, to the volcanic slopes of the Marsabit Mountains and to the —> Read More