In 1969, Australian John Rendall and his friend Ace Bourke (whose surname is often rendered as “Berg”), both of whom were then living in London, bought a lion cub named Christian from Harrods department store.For the next year the two men (along with Rendall’s girl friend and an actress) raised the cub in the Sophistocat furniture shop, where Christian had living quarters in the basement, and the lion became a popular local figure. However, when Christian grew from his initial 35 lb. to 185 lb. within a year, his keepers realized their lion would need to be relocated to a more suitable environment.
By chance, one day Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna — the stars of the 1966 film Born Free— wandered into Sophistocat looking for a desk. The actors suggested that conservationist George Adamson (whose wife, Joy, wrote the book Born Free about their real-life experiences in raising a lion cub and rehabilitating it into the wild) might be able to help find an appropriate home for Christian.
Rendall and Berg flew with Christian to Nairobi, Kenya, where they met up with George Adamson, who helped the lion settle into living an independent life (and integrating into a pride with other lions) in Kenya’s Kora Reserve.
The visit to Kora led to a lifelong affinity with Africa and its wildlife, but also to a long relationship with Adamson, said Rendall. “When we took Christian to Africa, it was my first visit to that magnificent continent. I was entranced by the sights and smells, and to see Christian in his right environment was so exciting. Suddenly, instead of being ‘exotic’ he just fit in, blending into the landscape. Even so, it was wrenching to leave him behind knowing all the inevitable dangers and hardships facing an animal in the wild, particularly a pampered one.”
Rendall returned to London with a broken heart. “I felt happy for Christian as he was clearly content. But there was an overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness. He left this huge gap – it felt like empty nest syndrome. Ace went off travelling and I was alone.”
In 1972, a year after the heart-stopping hug that made international news and inspired two documentaries, Rendall and Bourke returned to Kenya to see Christian for what turned out to be the last time. Adamson told them he hadn’t seen Christian for three months and, incredibly, he reappeared soon after the men arrived. There was another tearful reunion. “On the third day, during dinner, Christian ambled into the camp and rushed over to us, grunting with excitement. He knocked George over, jumped on the table and interrupted dinner. He tried to sit on our laps, even though he was now a 500 lb cat. We spent nine amazing days with him. He was much bigger and more independent, with a pride of lionesses and a batch of cubs, and we were nearly superfluous to his life. But that was the whole point of it, to return to the wild.”
You can follow the heartwarming story on You Tube. Here are a few videos at random, not in any chronological order:
Feature Image Via @alioncalledchristian.com.au