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Christian the lion’s owners recall final farewell

Those two guys with the lion — the ones in the YouTube video with the Whitney Houston soundtrack — are back. Now, they are showing another film clip, unseen for years, of their second and final reunion in Africa with their pet and friend, Christian.

Ace Bourke and John Rendall talked about that final reunion with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday in New York. It shows the same two shaggy Aussies seen in the clip that was viewed by some 45 million people on YouTube last year. But Christian the lion is twice the size he was in that film, an enormous and regal king of the Kenyan jungle.

In the first video, Christian leaps on them in joy. In the second, he’s nearly 500 pounds and totally in charge. Although he tried to climb on their laps, film from the encounter shows him lying placidly on the ground while his friends hunker down with him to exchange kisses and licks.

Thanks to the attention generated by the YouTube film, Bourke and Rendall have updated and republished the book they wrote about their experience in 1971, “A Lion Called Christian.” They’ve also written a children’s version of the book called “Christian the Lion.” And, they told Vieira, they’ve reintroduced to the public George Adamson, the man who rehabilitated Christian and worked tirelessly to preserve endangered wildlife and habitat in Kenya.

“The beauty of YouTube is that it’s introduced another generation to Adamson and his work,” Bourke told Vieira after watching his younger self with the lion who once roamed the streets of swinging London of 1969 and 1970. Some have suggested that the YouTube film, which shows Christian hugging and licking his two human friends like an eager puppy, must have been staged. The lion had not seen them for a year while he was being rehabilitated into the wild.

“That’s his genuine reaction, you can see the excitement,” Rendall told Vieira, who admitted that she is one of millions who can’t watch the video without getting misty-eyed.

The video has been so popular because it strikes deep emotional chords, Rendall added. “There are so many issues that have arisen out of it,” he said. “One, I think, is that people can appreciate the love that an animal can have for human beings. It’s completely honest. You couldn’t fake that,” Rendall said.

They had raised Christian from when he was a few months old after buying him in Harrods, the London department store that bragged that it could get anything for anyone. He had hung out with them in a furniture store on King’s Road, the hippest street in swinging London, romped with them in the big garden behind a local church, toured the town in the back of their convertible, and even eaten with them in restaurants.

“It wasn’t as extraordinary to have a lion in London at that time,” Rendall told Vieira. “There were so many extraordinary things going on. Swinging London. There was music. We would see the Stones and the Beatles driving up and down King’s Road.” In that milieu, he said, they were “just a couple Aussies with a lion.” Read more about Christian’s upbringing in London in this book excerpt.

Bourke and Rendall had known each other in their native Australia. After graduating university, they made their separate ways to London, as many Aussies did and still do before settling down into a career. They met by chance in London and moved in together, getting work and lodging over a trendy custom-made furniture store named, appropriately enough, “Sophistocat.”

They don’t recommend that anyone else do it, and hasten to say that the very idea is preposterous and dangerous. But they did it and they succeeded and their story continues to move people and focus attention on vanishing wildlife and habitat even today.

Bourke and Rendall had no training in how to raise a lion, but seemed to have an intuitive knowledge that you don’t own a lion as you would a dog and you’re not its master; you’re its friend. They never showed fear around Christian and never tried to impose their will on him. Instead of his owners, they were his pride.

There was just one time when they were frightened by Christian, and also one time when he was scared by anything in London. Their moment came when Christian got hold of a fur belt that had fallen off a coat and settled down to chew it to oblivion.

They tried to rescue the belt, but Christian flattened his ears back and growled, not like their pal but like a wild animal they didn’t recognize. Rendall and Bourke felt like fleeing the room, but instead they retreated a few steps and talked calmly to each other, as if nothing were wrong. They remain convinced that if they had shown Christian the fear they felt, the relationship would have been over and Christian would have become dangerous.

But Christian also had his moment of terror, they said in their book. As Rendall tells it, they took Christian with them on a visit to some friends. A woman who lived with their friends was taking a bath, and Christian wandered into the bathroom to get a drink. The bloodcurdling scream that greeted him sent the king of the jungle running away in terror.

Giving up their pet

Adamson had rehabilitated Elsa, the lion who became famous through the “Born Free” book and movie. Bourke and Rendall were introduced to Adamson through a chance meeting with the actor and actress who had starred in the film. When Christian was a year old and too big to live in the furniture shop, Adamson agreed to attempt to introduce the lion to a native habitat neither he nor his zoo-bred parents had ever known.

When Bourke and Rendall went to Kenya a year after Christian was returned to the wild, even Adamson hadn’t believed that Christian would be so enthusiastic to see his former owners. But Rendall and Bourke said they never had any doubts.

They bought Christian in 1969 and took him to Africa the following year. The YouTube reunion was in 1971. The following year, they went back to see him one more time.

Adamson, who would be killed by robbers in 1989, had told them he was seeing Christian infrequently and wasn’t sure he would be around. But Bourke and Rendall went to Adamson’s camp and waited. On the third day, during dinner, Christian ambled into the camp to say hello.

“He totally interrupted dinner. Tried to sit on our laps. Knocked George over. Jumped on the table,” Rendall told Vieira. “That wasn’t filmed.”

During that visit, Bourke added, “We were very respectful and he dictated the relationship totally.”

Adamson saw Christian a few more times over the next several months, but finally lost all contact. The wildlife expert believed that Christian moved north to happier hunting grounds and lived out his natural life. Some have speculated that poachers may have killed Christian, but Bourke and Rendall are convinced that if someone had shot the lion, word would have gotten around. Christian, they said, was, at 500 pounds, probably the biggest lion in Kenya, and that kind of kill would not have remained a secret.

The experience moved Rendall, who lives in London and Australia, to devote his life to conservation, and he is a trustee of the Adamson Trust. Bourke, who became a dealer in Aboriginal art in his native Australia, is also a supporter of the cause of preserving wildlife.

Both hope that the millions of people who have been so moved by the clip contribute to the cause.

To learn more about the George Adamson Trust and how you can support the preservation of wildlife, visit wildlifenow.com.

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