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.