This is the remarkable story of the lion cub from Harrods raised by humans and released into the wild. Though the lion’s journey had ups and many downs, it proves that some bonds can never be broken.
Coming To London
In 1969, university friends John Rendall and Ace Bourke moved from Australia to London looking to make their mark on England. As well as partying with rock stars and actors, the newly arrived Australians decided to take a trip to Harrods, which at the time had a zoo department.
Harrods Furry Surprise
In November of 1969, during John and Ace’s visit to the department store, Harrods put two lion cubs on sale: Marta and Marcus, who would later be renamed to Christian. Upon laying eyes on the male cub, John and Ace knew he was meant to be theirs. However, once deciding that they wanted the lion there were many obstacles that the friends would have to go through, including an interview by Harrods which all potential buyers had to go through.
Passing The Test
After suiting up for probably one of the most important interviews of their lives, John and Ace got the news that they had passed the Harrods test and purchased Christian for 250 guineas, equivalent to £3,500 in today’s money. Neither of them had any experience with big cats and people’s reaction to their purchase was pretty extreme. To them, it didn’t seem weird as people at that time people were doing absurd things in London. The first problem they faced was where to keep the cat.
Christian’s New Home
Ace and John worked as salesmen at Sophisticat, a store which sold restored pine furniture on King’s Road and also happened to live in the apartment above the shop. After going up and back, the friends persuaded Sophisticat’s owner to let Christian have the run of the shop’s large basement which would become his new home. The basement was filled with furniture which Christian used to stalk and play hide and seek behind. Christian proved to be very imaginative.
While the playful lion cub loved his toys, he would shred teddy bears in two seconds flat, so John and Ace had to eventually find sturdier toys for the growing cat. Even the cleaner who came into the store twice a day had her cleaning equipment treated like playthings. Christian would steal her dusters and bat around her broom while she was trying to clean. Christian, however, was not restricted to the shop for his entertainment and soon found new playgrounds.
Shrieks From Queen’s Gate
Friends of Ace and John were both terrified and intrigued by the new member of their family, but even so, many of them welcomed Christian into their homes. Two girlfriends the pair left Australia with had a huge apartment in Queen’s Gate to which they invited Christian. During one visit John heard screams coming from the upstairs bathroom. Terrified of what he would find, John ran upstairs and expected the worst as he swung the bathroom door open.
Unwanted Bath Time Visitor
As John entered the bathroom, he saw his friend Robbie in the bathtub and Christian leaned up against the tub drinking from the bath! He must have been thirsty, or just bored and looking for some fun. Robbie, however, was quite shaken up and was scared that if Christian ran out of water, he might have gotten hungry which made her particularly nervous. As Christian grew bigger so did the challenge of raising an African lion in a city.
Raw Meat And Photographers
At six months old, the fast growing cub was already consuming three kilos of raw meat a day. In his natural habitat, Christian would likely be feasting on a diet of wilder beast but because that wasn’t an option in Chelsea a chef from a nearby restaurant brought the baby lion meat and gigantic bones. It was becoming quite the expense to keep Christian fed, that was until they met the famous photographer, Derek Cattani.
Christian’s First Photoshoot
Cattani decided to start a record of Christian’s life in London and got together a couple of feature ideas, and with Easter coming up he decided to do a shoot of Christian with chicks. Although Cattani thought Christian would wipe out the chicks with one swipe of his paw, he was surprised at how gentle he was with them. The lion received 30 pounds for his work which would be put towards his food, but paying Christian’s meat bill wasn’t the only challenge.
Getting Christian A Bank Account
However, the photoshoot with Cattani wasn’t Christian’s last time in front of the camera, in fact, it opened up doors for the lion to become a model. Christian booked quite a few gigs where he would get paid to sit for photos. Jennifer-Mary Taylor, one of the managers at Sophistocat, decided Christian had to have a bank account so they took him up to their bank and the bank manager opened an account for him so he could put his money in.
Playing In The Cemetery
The growing lion needed serious exercise, but John and Ace knew that letting Christian loose in the parks of Chelsea could cause a riot. One day, at the end of King’s Road, the friends discovered a cemetery which they knew immediately would make the perfect exercise enclosure for Christian. After explaining the situation, the reverend decided to allow Christian to run around the cemetery. The reverend knew this would be better than having him cooped up in a shop or house all day.
While playing in his new enclosure, Christian was not only exercising but also developing the skills a lion needs to survive in the wild. A lot of the physical interactions that young cubs have with each other is all part of learning how to hunt, and that learned aspect is reinforced by play. Christian’s lion instincts were rapidly surfacing, but after four months of being raised by Ace and John, he had clearly developed a strong emotional bond with them.
Leap Of Love
Many close to Ace and John said that Christian was a like another person in their life, and he was not only dependent on them but also loved them back. Christian would always leap into their arms, and they would wrap their arms around him. Like a good cat if they were reading the newspaper all Christian wanted to do was sit in their lap. But at eight months old Christian weighed 70 kilos and they realized his size was becoming a problem.
Christian’s First Accident
Christian was getting too big too quickly, and he became capable of inflicting real damage which worried them about what would happen next. One night when the cleaning lady called for him from the top of the stairs, he put his hands on her shoulders, and as he slipped on the top step, put his claws out and ripped her dress. But one incident, however, made John and Ace realize Christian was a predator hardwired for aggression.
Fighting Over Fur
One day Christian found a fur belt that had fallen off of a customers coat in the shop, and as the lion picked it up, John went to pull it away from him. For the first time, Christian flattened his ears and snarled in a very nasty way that frightened them and sent a clear signal that the lion was becoming territorial and what was his was not to be touched. Christian’s rapid growth was also putting his exercise regime in peril.
As Christian got even larger, it was becoming more difficult to exercise him in the cemetery because of the new regular visitors in the churchyard. The larger the young lion got, the more uncomfortable the Reverend felt, thinking “how long this could continue?” The Reverend eventually suggested that it may have to stop and John and Ace dreaded having to accept that London would no longer be his home. But many of the other options were unappealing.
Finding A New Home
For Ace and John, zoos were out of the question and rejected circuses as they didn’t want Christian living in captivity like his parents. The two couldn’t betray their new family member by putting him in a zoo, and they knew that they had to find something but what it would be they didn’t know. John and Ace were getting desperate to find a new home for Christian until an extraordinary chance encounter changed everything.
Bill And Virginia
Film stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna visited the furniture shop and came face to face with Christian the lion. John and Ace asked Bill if he could help them to secure Christian a better future to which Bill responded with, “would you agree to let Christian go back to the wild?” Excited yet scared, John and Ace agreed and so they began talking about taking the next steps to finding Christian his new forever home, which is exactly where he belonged.
Travers and McKenna both starred in the 1996 box office hit, Born Free, which was filmed four years earlier and told the true story of an orphaned lion cub named Elsa. After lot’s of preparation and conditioning, Elsa was successfully reintroduced into the wild, and this gave them hope for Christian. Their work on the film turned Bill and Virginia into passionate lion conservationists, and they were sill in touch with the man who’s work inspired the film, George Adamson.
A Glimmer Of Hope
Adamson was a lion expert who hand reared orphan lion cubs like Elsa preparing them for life in the wild. Adamson’s work was controversial, but for John and Ace, it represented Christian’s best chance for freedom. The friends contacted Adamson, and he expressed his excitement for the challenge of trying to rehabilitate a fifth generation zoo-bred lion. John and Ace thought they had found the perfect solution, but then they encountered another major stumbling block.
Trouble Getting In
Just as John and Ace became excited at the prospect of having Christian returned to the wild, they now needed permission from the Kenyan government to import him, and negotiations proved to be complicated and lengthy. Kenya wasn’t excited to receive Christian because as they saw it, there were enough lions running around and didn’t want another predator brought into the country. But the rapidly growing Christian needed somewhere new to stay and fast which is when this happened!
Christian’s Temporary Home
Virginia and Bill offered Christian a place to stay at their place in Dorking until the Kenyans gave a verdict. When he first got to their estate, Christian walked without a lead, and although spooked by a scarecrow he didn’t run off. Virginia and Bill built Christian a big and secure compound in their garden which was the closest he had ever been to the wild. The lion was delighted with his new temporary home and had no idea there would be other residents.
Caravan Of Dreams
John and Ace gave up their jobs and moved into a caravan beside Christian’s compound because they knew these would be the last weeks they would have with him, and wanted to make the most of every second. John said, “Christian was our responsibility, and we didn’t want him to feel abandoned, that was part of our deal with him. It was such a pleasure to have more time with him, and we go to know him even better.”
Christian’s Day At The Beach
Early one morning John, Ace, Virgina, and Bill decided to take Christian to West Wittering to play on the beach with balloons. When he dipped his paw in the sea and hated it, he simply ran off. Bill ran down the beach waving a balloon trying to encourage Christian, but he just wanted to race on the beach. As they all tried to race with Christian, they huffed and puffed eventually passed out as they were no match for the young lion.
Living In Limbo
Four weeks after Christian’s move to Dorking there was still no news from the Kenyan government, and the delay meant that the now ten-month-old lion was outgrowing his compound. The situation only got worse as Christian grew bigger. George Adamson had offered the lion a place at his reserve in Kenya, but John and Ace were worried that the Kenyans wouldn’t allow him into their country. With no backup plan, Christian’s entire future was in limbo.
After three months of negotiations, the Kenyan government finally gave the permission for Christian to enter the country and the young lion was finally on his way to Africa. Before the flight Christian was given a light sedative which was recommended by various vets in the London Zoo, and he was hoisted into the hold which was a scary sight for John and Ace. The trip from London to Nairobi in 1970 was mammoth, and they weren’t sure if Christian would make the journey.
Christian arrived safely to Kenya, but now that he was in Africa, whether or not he could survive in the wild would be up to George Adamson, a controversial figure in Kenya. Once in George’s custody, they all set out to Kora nature reserve which is located in a deserted part of the country. It was there that George hoped to establish a new lion pride with Christian at its heart, but when they drove from the airport something phenomenal happened!
With Christian loaded into the back of the truck, John and Ace could tell that the lion needed to use the bathroom stop, but George shot this down because if he ran of, they wouldn’t catch him. With confidence, John convinced George to let Christian out of the truck, and he went out went to the bathroom and jumped straight back into the Land Rover. At that moment George was so impressed, he told John and Ace that Christian would make it.
London Lion Luxuries
After traveling over 200km, they arrived at Kora nature reserve Christian’s new home. Although in an alien environment, Christian still demanded his comfort from home. The first night Christian slept on one of the bed’s with a pillow! With beds, pillows, John, Ace and photographer Derek there with him, Christian felt that Africa was just home away from home and seemed unfazed by his new environment. But Christian was a London lion in Africa, and his background put him at great risk.
Christian Ran But He Couldn’t Hide
Adamson’s plan was to create a pride with Christian and two other lions, Catania, a lioness cub and an adult male, Boy, born and domesticated in Africa, but first they had to bond. The first time Boy, a very cross and mature lion, saw Christian, he thought Christian was a threat and aggressively kept charging at the wires. Christian hid behind John and Ace’s legs, but he couldn’t hide there forever. They would need to face each other outside the compound.
Life Or Death
One day George said they had to bite the bullet and introduce the two so that they could move forward with building the pride. So one afternoon, John, Ace, George and Christian walked up a rock to where Boy was sitting in the sun. As they approached Boy, he rose and doubled in size while his mane swelled as he looked frightened by the approach. This terrifying moment was a moment of life or death – would Boy accept Christian?
The Final Fight
Boy came down from his rock and jumped on Christian. In the quickness of the movements, it looked like Christian could be killed but amazingly his lion instincts kicked in. Christian snarled and rolled onto his back in the correct submission to an elder; he knew that this was part of what being a lion was. Battling for the position within a pride is normal lion behavior, and thankfully Christian wasn’t injured by Boy’s attack, but rather put in his place.
Shortly after the duel Boy and Christian became the closest of friends. Adamson’s his first Kora pride was finally taking place, but now there was no space for Ace or John. After four weeks together they left Christian with his new family and while they were sad to leave him, they knew Christian was in the right palace with the right man and had a chance at a great future. But it wasn’t the last time they would see Christian.
The Lost One
Eight months later, Christian and his pride were trying to establish their territory when a clash with a klan of rival lions left Boy seriously injured. Despite George’s care, the attack had far-reaching effects on Boy, changing his temperament and soon became a real threat to humans. Boy attacked a worker named Stanley in the compound and in an attempt to save the worker, was shot. Christian had sadly and tragically lost his best friend.
The double tragedy was devasting news and soon became international news about George Adamson’s ‘tame’ lions and the dangers of his work rather than the good aspects of his work. The death of Stanley was a tragedy a loss to his family and to George. With boy’s death, Christian would sit by Boy’s grave for hours on end. Now the only male in the kora pride, Christian would now be on his own.
Tony Fitzjohn, a 25-year-old with a love of wildlife, joined John Adamson at Kora and he quickly recognized Christian’s unhappiness. In an interview, Fitzjohn reflected, “He did miss Boy it did add to his fear level. It was sort of how do I cope now what do I do; you know why is he gone where is he gone. There’s always that period of worry and uncertainty, not understanding why someone suddenly diapered but they get themselves together pretty quickly.”
Waiting For Christian
After a year, John and Ace visited Christian like a family to give him support during the tough time. However, they knew things would be different this time and weren’t sure how the lion would receive them in the wilds of Africa. After an anxious day in the compound, they walked onto Christian’s territory. The grown lion descended a large rock with a hard look on his face as he assessed what was going on. Christian walked down very slowly.
With the suspense being too much for John or Ace to handle, they called out Christian’s name and he began galloping toward them. The reunion was heartwarming and none of them could contain their excitement. The fact that John and Ace were human and Christian was animal proved irrelevant as their love had no boundaries. Christian’s acceptance of John and Ace was mirrored by some other unexpected visitors and they were in shock of what was going on around them.
Lionesses brought to Kora three months earlier to develop the pride also welcomed the newcomers. When asked about the experience John said “Suddenly we were aware that there were two lionesses with us as well and they were greeting us and pushing and shoving. We had these lionesses we didn’t know milling around us, Christian jumping up on us, Geroge beaming it was really quite euphoric.” As emotional as they were they knew they were witnessing something quite extraordinary.
Christian The African Lion
Ace and John were confident that Christian had found his place in Africa so leaving him for the second time was much easier than the first. Christian had developed a good relationship with George and a powerful connection with the lionesses, not to mention he was huge! Ace and John went back to London relaxed and reassured about Christian’s future as an African lion. But a growing lion reaching maturity could be a serious threat to those around him.
George told John and Ace that adolescence was the most dangerous time for a lion and a time he was most weary of them. Christian had roughed around one of the workers at Kora but didn’t injure him, instead just played with him like a rag doll. Christian clearly hadn’t lost his knack and love for playtime. George kept John and Ace updated as to how Chrisitan was doing trying to find his place in the wild of Africa.
Ace and John continued to seek out information on Christian’s life on the other side of the world. George would continue to provide the men with regular bulletins about what was happening and told them that Christian had been disappearing for months on end and was obviously looking to establish his own territory further away from Kora. About a year later they thought it would be nice to pay Christian a visit again to see how he was getting on in Africa.
John And Ace’s Return To Kenya
In June, 1972, John and Ace went back to Kenya hoping to see Christian again. George warned them that the now independent lion might not come to camp, but they still wanted to try on the chance that they will see him. After three days of waiting at camp, Christian finally arrived at the compound and looked much different from the year before. Christian had matured considerably and was bigger with lots of charisma. Both Lions and humans all had a special love for Christian.
Boy’s Night Out
The last night they had with Christian was a lot of fun. Everyone in the camp was relaxed and laughing as they sat around a fire laughing, smoking, joking, and drinking. They had been up all night thanks to Christian sitting on the table as well as all of them. After a long night out with the boys, Christian went back to the lionesses and collapsed from exhaustion. Soon after, Ace and John went back to see Christian, but he was gone.
Christian’s Final Days
Astonished that Christian was nowhere to be found, they thought that he would come back and the story would continue but it didn’t. Christian had gone and wasn’t coming back. From that day on, John and And never saw their baby lion cub again. Christian was no longer dependent on them, and that was the most wonderful success. They hoped that Christian had gone and had a territory, Cub, and pride of his own, living a marvelous natural life.
50 Million Views And Counting
It was the first posting of the reunion clip by a Californian student in 2006 that turned their story into a global phenomenon. To date, the reunion has an incredible 50 million hits! The student believes the video has become so popular because it strikes people on a powerful base of love and she’s proud to have been involved. The number of people who have seen it is mind boggling to both Ace and John. They believe it’s a cry for Africa from Christian.
Christian On Exhibit
Christian’s legacy is still alive today as he was recently made the star of a new exhibition at Mosman. Images of the lion cub from Harrods are now on show at the H’art Matters Gallery in a photographic series. Regarding the exhibit, Ace Bourke said, “Christian still has an influence on how people view animals and how we should protect them and love them. It was a miracle it turned out so well. Christian was an extraordinary animal.”
The Book – A Lion Called Christian
Christian, the lion cub from Harrods, was given a chance to live the life of an African lion and he took it, succeeding wildly. While it’s unknown, he might have gone out and survived another ten full years in the wild. John and Ace are convinced that they did the right thing by giving Christian back his freedom. They have even updated their book titled A Lion Called Christian that tells his inspirational story for all to enjoy.