Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story

Watch a preview of Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story:


Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story airs Wednesday, September 12 at 8/7c (check local listings).

In 1960, a book written about raising an orphaned lion cub named Elsa and then releasing her back into the wild became a worldwide bestseller. Born Free was a game changer that essentially altered the way we perceive relationships between humans and animals. Because of the emotional bond George and Joy Adamson formed with Elsa, lions could no longer be dismissed simply as brutal killers to be shot while on safari. Elsa became an individual in the eyes of the world, and her story made her a symbol for all animals’ right to live free. Hollywood took the story to the next level with the 1966 release of the film based on the book. Starring real-life husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as George and Joy Adamson, it became a box office hit and award-winner, and turned Travers and McKenna into wildlife activists in the process.

But behind all the bright lights and public success lies the actual day-to-day story of the Adamsons’ life with Elsa. Diaries, home movies and detailed records reveal the real difficulties faced by the Adamsons as they began and continued their pioneering work with lions despite changing perceptions of their work and the increasing dangers around them. Recollections of Virginia McKenna and others who knew and worked with the Adamsons reshape the story told fifty years ago, retelling it as it really happened, and with no fairy tale ending. But Elsa’s legacy lives on as a touchstone for all who would speak for and work to support the freedom and welfare of wild animals everywhere.

How has Elsa’s story changed the way you view lions and other wild animals? Share your story.

  • Teanna Byerts

    I’ve been surrounded by animals since I was born: dogs, horses, and cats. I’m a Leo, so the Lion has special meaning. I read the book when I was a kid, saw the film (one of the few movies we went to). It was one of many animal stories I read as a kid, and like the others, influenced the way I related to the rest of the natural world. Oddly, the song stuck in my head, a sort of anthem for some deep knowing, something so far down in my subconcious I couldn’t name it. Today my art, photography and writing resonates with animals and our relationships with them. I’ve volunteered with a local county park whose purpose is to connect kids with the natural world, and with wildlife rehabbers whose educational programs seek to kindle the same spark Elsa did. I’ve “wrestled” a (very small) tiger, and held the Lion King on my lap, feeling the power of these magnificent cats, visible even in their childhoods.

    And I will never be able to pass a Landrover on the road without seeing Elsa perched on top.

    Thanks Joy, and Elsa.

  • Marlene Emmett

    I can’t wait to see this film, as I am a major fan of Elsa’s.
    I had a 21 year old Angora Persian and she would love to watch “Born Free” with me.
    I’d purr to her and make chuffing sounds and she’d purr back.
    We loved Elsa’s story and the story of her handlers,and were saddened when Joy was murdered,
    just like the lady in Gorilla’s in the Mist.

  • Mike

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s weekend was great and I hope that they have a great week,plus I hope that they had a Happy New Year’s Eve and a Happy New Year’s Day and I hope that 2011 is a great year to all!

  • Anna

    I focussed my reading attention into the Born Free series in 1969 through 1970. Born Free, Living Free, and Staying Free were the books that kept me company when my father was stationed at Yokota Air Base. I was about 13 years old. Over the years I held this treasure close to me. In fact, I think Elsa was my role model as a mother. I loved to read about Elsa. I have daughters, too, and we have had our scrapes as well. Thank you Joyce Adamson for the stories. I’ll be watching Nature.

  • Kiki

    One of the truly great stories of our time! It was about time that the world was so poignantly introduced to Lions from another point of view. Their majesty was truly discovered by the Adamsons, and shown to us via a wonderful book of engrossing stories of courage, focus, cunning, thoughtfulness and love for both the Lions and the Humans. Incredible story. A must read, bucket-list type of knowledge that will enrich everyone’s lives! And now to see more of it on TV is stupendous!

  • LOLO


  • Lori

    The movie Born Free made a huge impact on me as a child. I loved Elsa’s story and admired the Adamsons’ work. I think I could trace my life-long passion for animal rights and big-cat welfare directly to this story.

  • Deborah

    I was just a little girl when “Born Free” came out — WOW, what a profound memory!
    Love ~ Love ~ Love Elsa and her story… FOREVER!

  • Jane

    I was only 5 yrs. old when “Born Free” was released. I remember watching it when I was around 9 or 10 and fell in love with Elsa, and all wildlife. I love the song to this day ; but never knew that Joy Adamson was murdered! They were very, compassionate and couragous people.

  • Jane

    I was 11 years old when “Born Free” came out & it captivated my heart. It taught me to love & appreciate wildlife for their beauty & right to live freely; as all animals should. I have been an advocate of wildlife protection ever since. It saddens me however to learn today that Joy Adamson had been murdered. For her legacy as well as Elsa’s I wish “Born Free” would be once again shown on PBS for those who never experienced this wonderful movie the first time.

  • Millie

    I was 7 when I watched the film “Born Free” at a drive-in theatre with my parents and 3 sisters. I being the youngest sat between my parents tin the front seat. I was totally mesmerized by the movie. It is still my all time favorite.
    I sobbed when Elsa was set free….
    From that day forward I became a HUGE animal lover. I currently have 2 dogs and 2 cats and volunteer many hours at a local no-kill animal shelter.
    Someday soon I hope to get to Kenya!

  • Trudy

    Look forward to watching this tonight. Check out Christian the Lion on youtube and see another wonderful lion story that the Adamson’s helped with. In the 1960’s, Christian was purchased at Harrod’s in London and lived in a flat until he was taken to Kenya and released. Check out the reunion video taken one year later….

  • Pat

    I fell in love with Elsa & the film Born Free…read the book & the record…Elsa was a treasure & her legacy has impacted people’s thinking about human treatment of lions & wild animals. The growth of animal activists/advocates grew.
    In another lifetime I will live in Africa with the lions…

  • Karen Newcombe

    This was an excellent show summarizing the Adamson’s story and their contributions to changing the attitude of the general public towards wildlife conservancy. I was a child when Born Free was published and in reading it I learned a love of wildlife, that animals are individuals with complex feelings and needs, and about the immense pressures on Africa’s people, wild animals and environment. May their work and words live on to inspire future generations.

  • Ryan W

    I am obsessed with the story of Elsa. I can never get tired of watching the movie Born Free. Hope Channel 13 in New York City will air more African lion programs.

    Thanks channel 13 in New York for airing this fascinating program.

  • Barb

    The story “Born Free” had such a profound affect on me and my interest in animals. I believe I was around 13 and had seen the movie with my mother and remember how much it had tuned my interest and love for lions and other wild animals. I recall with such tenderness back then when my father returned from the drugstore with both medication and the book one evening when I was sick and in bed. I treasure that book despite it’s having fallen apart. Later, I had a Siamese kitten whom I promptly named Elsa….. she had such similar characteristics as the real Elsa.. These memories warm my heart….. What a wonderful story, too, is Christian the Lion…..

  • Ruth

    “Born Free” has always been a very special movie with our family. My son, Jess, was born in 1976. When he was a little boy he enjoyed the movie. When he was six years old, we gave him a golden retriever puppy for Ch ristmas. He named him “Jasper” after Elsa’s cub, Jasper, in the movie because he looked like one of her cubs, saying that golden retriever puppies looked like lion cubs. Jasper is also a family name dating back to the 18th century when Jasper Parish on my father’s side was kidnapped by indians in Upstate New York and lived with them until freed in the American/Indian war and later became an indian scout. This weekend brought back great memories of our beloved golden retriever and how my son loved him naming him after Elsa’s little cub, Jasper..

  • Patricia Dillon

    As a lonely girl on a farm in Northeastern Ohio in the 1950’s, I befriended and tamed feral cats in Northeastern Ohio like a hobby. I was thrilled to become a zookeeper (or Zoo Animal Nurse) at Columbus Zoological Gardens in 1969, where I took care of Emmy and Oscar, captive born second generation Lowland Gorillas, born of Colo. Also several cats briefly, including a lion, and a couple leopards, and a pair of baby pumas, and many other kinds of animals eventually. Few women were hired then as zookeepers and publicity involving people handling wild animals in a gentle, interactive way was really just getting started.

    Now, 41 years later, I’m less impressed by how gentle and affectionate these animals can be (for I always knew that), than I am the cruel violence of so many humans. I had briefly forgotten that both Joy and George Adamson had been senselessly murdered. I hadn’t forgotten about Dian Fossey’s murder, and one of my zoo friends had met her at the zoo and watched Dian interact with Bongo, the Gorilla that fathered the two baby gorillas I took care of in my early days at the zoo. The rapid decline in numbers of animals like Lions in such a short time and the over-crowding of the land by people is a very serious concern of mine. And other land changes are occurring, like rivers decreasing in volume that provide water for all. 40 or 50 years may seem like a long time to those who are much younger than me, but it seems like a very short time to me!

  • janice

    I found the story to be very deep. I wish there were more like the couple that help’d raise elsa. I had the book at one time, and like a silly salley I threw it a way. I will always have a soft spot for everyone alive and passed, that help’d write the book and produce the movie. A movie and book that will always stay alive.

  • Peggy Maria Spates

    Like many other animal rights activists and animal lovers, Elsa will always be in my heart. I attended the University of Nairobi in 1971 and have fond memories of the lions outside our tents in Ngorogoro crater….Joy and George Adamsons’ murders by her worker and poachers/thieves was so senseless. There was a wonderful article in VOGUE magazine last year about a wonderful black woman working on her PHD and spending time in East Africa trying to save the 20,000 lions left…..they and Tigers are Gods most beautiful creatures in my opinion.

  • Judi

    This was a heart felt story. Such love and dedication for a lifetime only to be murdered senselessly.

  • Ellen Groves Paiva

    Thank you for this presentation! “Born Free” has really influenced my life. I was hooked since I was a child when I first watched it on televison in black and white (1968?). After reading the books by George Adamson as well, it has been a wonderful journey of the mind. The Adamson’s have made my otherwise ordinary life exciting in that I see the natural world in a spiritual light. I even have a room dedicated to the movie which I call ‘the born free” room. I’ve read all the other comments on this post and enjoy that there are others who feel alot like I do. I wish the continent of Africa would turn around from the dreadful decline of such a beautiful place. This planet would have a terrible void if there were no more lions living free on the plains of Africa.

  • Rebecca Stager

    What a fabulous program! I enjoyed the home movie footage of George Adamson, writing in his journal and walking the land and the compound, especially. His tall, lean, pipe-smoking figure, combined with his quite, philosophical style made him feel like the archetype of a wise man. Joy Adamson, of course, is also a fine contributor to mankind and the marvelous animals of Africa, and all the contributors to the film gave their knowledge most generously. I thank the creators of this film so very much, and hope to obtain a copy when I can.

    [I entered this comment under the Adamson Timeline heading, and realized I really should have left it here].

  • Denise Bailie

    That was wonderful. It seemed like I saw “Born Free” every year for several years from the time it came out, when I was five. I think the way in which Joy and George chose to live their life made an impression on me that has never disappeared. Thanks for making this film and reminding everyone of the contributions of these people and reminding us the struggle continues.

  • Elsa DieLowin

    I was named for my grandmother, and growing up in the early 1960s with a German name was not easy. When “Born Free” came out, it not only made the world more aware of the beauty and reality of lions, but it changed for the better the way other children treated me. I have loved lions all my life, and was especially taken with “my lioness”. Among other things it motivated me to be active in promoting the saving of the mountain lions in California.

  • Gina

    When is Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story on in KQED my mom love it so much and wanted to see it again. Let me know. Thanks

  • Ellen Groves Paiva

    To add to my comment, my cell phone ring tone is the “born free” theme. Got it bad!!

  • Cesar

    As human population explodes in the billions and billions, less and less lands will become available for the wild animals.

    To be an environmental activist is to embrace population control including birth control pills, condoms, women’s choice to terminate pregnance, vasectomies, etc. Religious Fundamentalist commandments that states we must populate every corner of this planet is obsolete and irresponsible.

    In less than 10,000 years Homo sapiens have multiplied so much that we are literally being pushed into the oceans in some countries. Enough is enough.

  • Ellen Groves Paiva

    Cesar; you said exactly what I have been thinking. Thank you for speaking out!

  • Michael

    This was one of the emotionally saddest docs Ive ever seen.

  • Shelley

    Every year the movie Born Free would be shown (back in the days when there were only 3-5 channels!) and each year it would be a big event at our home. We just didn’t miss watching that movie. I loved the story so much that I learned how to play the theme on the piano. My best tribute to Elsa the lion was naming our fist Doberman Elsa. She was a sweet, brave noble dog and definitely lived up to her namesake.

  • wine

    I liked the home movie footage regarding George Adamson, writing in his log and going for walks the terrain and the ingredient, especially. His / her tall, low fat, pipe-smoking figure, coupled with his fairly, philosophical style created him feel like the archetype of the wise guy. Joy Adamson, naturally, is also a okay contributor to humanity and the outstanding animals of Africa, and all the allies to the film gave their knowledge most generously. We thank your creators of the film so very much, as well as hope to have a copy after i can. http://bestwinonline.net/

  • marianne

    Given that I grew up loving the natural world, thanks to my parents’ wonderful influences, it was Born Free that grabbed my heart and gave me the feeling that wildlife must be free to fulfill their own life’s purpose. The song was perhaps the first that I learned and has given me solace at times. Thank you for doing the movie for all in the world to see the joys and connection of loving a wild animal.

  • Eddie

    I’m saddened to learn that Joy Adamson was murdered.This world needs more people like her! Ever since I saw the first film “Born Free”,I became a strong advocate for all animals and preservation of nature.So sad how humans abuse and kill animals to satisfy their materialistic mentality and greed and hostile nature.I can’t picture my life without animals.I’ve had dogs all my life,had 3 cats and have 3 horses,had a pig and chickens and birds and snakes.Every single living creature has a purpose on this earth just like humans,they deserve to “Live Free” as humans do!

  • Denise Anderson Escamilla

    I am so moved by Elsa, and the relationships between humans and these beautiful animals. I want to support the lions in the wild. I will find my way, and will do whatever I can.

  • Chris

    I love the story and the what the Adamsons did to change human attitudes towards animals. At age 12, Born Free was the first book I ever truly read on my own accord. I read the rest of the series and it inspired an interest in reading. I became very interested in ‘big cats’, so, I volunteered 13 years at an animal shelter dedicated to them. The experience was valuable to me personally and in my passion for the natural world.

  • mehdi hahou

    this famous story tells of the life of elsa the lioness.when she was only a cub.elsa was found by joy and george adamson her mother was dead

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