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‘Hugging’ lion’s ex-owners reflect on his legacy

The two men who raised Christian the lion in London, released him into the wild, then reunited with him as shown in a hit Internet video today remain as devoted as ever to preserving wildlife, calling Christian's saga “an extraordinary story.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The years have been kind to the two young men who cavorted around Austin Powers-era London with a pet lion named Christian, creating an enduring legacy that has deeply touched millions through a medium undreamt of then: the Internet. Today, John Rendall and “Ace” Bourke are as dashing as they once were hip — and they remain as devoted as ever to preserving the world’s endangered wildlife.

“This is Christian’s legacy. It’s an extraordinary story,” Rendall told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira from Sydney, Australia, Wednesday after he and Bourke watched the heartwarming film of their reunion with Christian that’s garnered millions of hits on YouTube.

Christian had been in Africa for a year when the video was shot. Raised in a London furniture shop, he was introduced into the wild by George Adamson, who, with his wife, Joy, had raised and then rehabilitated an orphaned cub named Elsa — an experience Joy turned into a book that became the hit movie “Born Free.”

But it was Christian, not the famed Elsa, who inspired Adamson’s associate, Tony Fitzjohn, to establish the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust when Adamson was murdered by bandits in Kenya in 1988. Out of the trust grew the Mkomazi Preserve in Tanzania, which has established the first breeding program for the endangered black rhinoceros.

“If we hadn’t made that spontaneous decision to buy Christian, have him in London, take him to George, [get him] successfully rehabilitated, the George Adamson Trust would not really have existed,” Rendall said. “And now there is a game park — a national park — as a direct result of Christian’s life. It’s a wonderful, wonderful endorsement.”

Overwhelming responseRendall and Bourke are silver-haired now. With scarves knotted loosely around their necks, they spoke from beneath the soaring arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, delighted to talk about a story that’s at once 39 years old and forever new.

“It is pretty extraordinary footage and quite humbling. But it is sort of very beautiful, the response,” Bourke told Vieira. “I suppose, 35 years later, to find that people are so fascinated by it and have so enjoyed it, is slightly overwhelming … and all the comments on the YouTube site, they’re so positive. It is marvelous that so many people are getting so much enjoyment out of it.”

They retold the story of going to London's Harrods department store in 1969 out of curiosity. A friend had told them she had asked the manager of the exotic animal department if she could buy a camel, and with classic British aplomb, he had dryly asked, “Would that be one hump or two, ma’am?” The two young men, who had grown up in Australia and recently graduated from college, were keen to see such a place.

At the store, they spotted a 35-pound lion cub in a little cage. Like kids enthralled by a puppy in a pet store window, they had to have him.

“It was an irresistible sight,” Rendall said. “We were rather shocked when we saw this cub in Harrods in a department store in a very small cage. Not only was he totally entrancing, we must be able to do something better for him. He can’t stay in a cage this size,” he remembers thinking.

They named him Christian and took him home to their pad in the Kings Road, the hippest address in the hippest part of London — Chelsea.

A happy cubhood
Pictures from those days show the juvenile lion chewing on a basket, eating off a woman’s plate and lounging in the back of a Mercedes convertible. (Last year, Bourke and Rendall had told The Daily Mail in London that Christian also toured town in a Bentley.)

“We were working in a pine shop, which was a very trendy furniture shop at the time in a very trendy part of London, the end of the ’60s, the beginning of the ’70s,” Rendall said. “It was a very creative, a very exciting time to be living in London. It almost seemed natural to be living with a lion and to have him sitting in the back of a car going up and down the Kings Road.”

But after a year, Christian had grown to 185 pounds and could not stay much longer as a house pet. No matter how much he loved his two-legged roomies, wild animals get bored in such settings. Ultimately, they can get in trouble.

Bourke told TODAY that they were fortunate enough to meet Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, the married actor and actress who had portrayed the Adamsons in “Born Free.” Through them they got an introduction to George Adamson. They got the lion to Adamson at a perfect time, and Adamson was able to introduce him to a habitat that neither Christian nor his ancestors had seen for five generations.

The reunion that has opened countless tear ducts came a year later. Rendall and Bourke said that everyone asks them if they were scared watching a lion start to approach them, first at a walk and then at a run. What if Christian was so thoroughly rehabilitated he no longer saw them as friends, but as hors d'oeuvres?

Love and excitement
“We had such a beautiful relationship with him,” Bourke said. “There was such trust between

us and such love. He ran toward us with such love and excitement in his eyes, and we felt exactly the same way. We were just so excited to see him, looking so big and healthy. The story had just turned out so beautifully, when it could have had a very different ending.”

Rendall referred to the film in describing the reunion. “You can see in that clip his body language,” he said. “When he first starts seeing us, he’s looking, looking. Is it us? Is it us? And then suddenly, he says, ‘Right, this is them.’ And down he comes. And there wasn’t a moment that we ever doubted that it was going to be a wonderful greeting … we never doubted it.”

Bourke and Rendall saw Christian a final time in 1974, by which time he had doubled in size and was now king of the jungle, with a pride of lionesses and a batch of cubs.

“He still recognized us,” Rendall said. “He was with wild lionesses. He had a litter of cubs and his genes had been passed on back into the wild. After that time we saw him, he was never seen again. It was like a final farewell … he was completely integrated back into the wild.”

The experience moved Rendall, who lives in London, to devote his life to conservation; today 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 preserving wildlife.

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

“We’re just hoping that people who have enjoyed this clip — it’s a phenomenal number — if they would want to contact the George Adamson Trust through and support us and support conservation, it would be wonderful to contribute to George’s memory,” Rendall said.

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