Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Lion Called Christian - John Rendall Interview

It has received over 60 million hits on YouTube: Christian the Lion reunites with his “foster parents,” Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. If you haven’t seen it yet, I dare you not to cry.

After watching this remarkable video I just had to talk to one of the men responsible for this “once in a lifetime” phenomenon. John Rendall has been kind enough to answer my questions and give us a bigger glimpse into this remarkable story. I have left it Q/A style so as to not leave out anything.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you're up to now?

I am currently in London spending time with my daughter Tallulah, who is a singer/songwriter (tallulahrendall.com). I have one son at Sydney University and another at a college in Massachusetts, so all I seem to do is chase them around the world!

2. Have you always been an animal/cat enthusiast?

Always. I grew up in the oldest country town in New South Wales—Bathurst, which was founded in 1813. We had working cattle dogs, house pet dogs, cats, birds, native galahs, frill-necked lizards, snakes, and kangaroos. Young kangaroos, “joeys,” were hand-fed in the laundry room with milk and honey until they were old enough to set free in the garden and later in the paddocks.

The first lions I saw were part of a travelling circus that came to town when I was eight or nine years old. They were so exotic and frightening I didn’t really think about the grim cages they were kept in. I was just glad the bars were strong. It is only right that such circuses no longer exist. What terrible lives those animals lived.

3. Did you have any second thoughts about taking in a lion cub?

Of course. It was a huge challenge, but I could not bear the thought of this beautiful cub staying any longer in the small cage at Harrods. I knew so much more about animals.

4. Most people "fall in love" with the idea of having an exotic pet, but you know firsthand what that entails. What would you tell people today about having a pet like Christian or any other exotic animal?

Don’t. We were incredibly lucky with Christian. He had been hand-reared and well–looked after at Harrods, within the confines of his small cage. But I would never do it again. By buying Christian we had inadvertently bought into the trade in exotic animals. Since the Endangered Species Act was implemented in 1973, it has been illegal for pet shops to deal in exotic animals.

The only exotic animal dealing/trading I condone is the swapping of animals between institutions involved in the breeding of endangered species. Examples are Taronga Zoo in Sydney; the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, New South Wales; Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom; Frankfurt Zoo in Germany; and the San Diego Zoo in the United States. These institutions are no longer “zoos” by definition as simply “show places” for exotic species but are centres of exotic species breeding programmes that protect gene pools and aid in the research of diseases in exotic species.

I am a Trustee of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, which administers and funds the Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. We breed endangered species, protect the game and environment, and educate local children. We have recently received three black rhinos from Czechoslovakia. They are from a separate gene pool than those we are breeding in Tanzania and are a bonus to our programme. This gene pool may well have died out if the rhinos had not been taken to Czechoslovakia.

5. Do you agree with circuses’ having large animals, such as lions and elephants, as part of their acts?

This is certainly no longer acceptable. It never has been. Cirque de Soleil has shown that circuses no longer need to have animal acts to bring the exotic to an audience. Sadly, there are still some old-style circuses featuring exotic animals in parts of Europe and Asia.

6. How did you find the courage, despite the odds, to do what you did?

It was a determination to try and find a better life for this beautiful animal. Even if it was only in the short-term, we felt we must be able to provide a better life than that in a small cage in a department store. We were young, fit Aussies and fortunately had enough resources to be able to look after Christian. Also, the owners of the pine furniture shop where we worked were very supportive: Joe Harding and John Barnardiston; the manageress, Jennifer-Mary (who was my girlfriend at the time); our daily, Kay Dew; and a girl called Unity Jones who came in to play with Christian every day (she had raised a lioness in Rome!).

7. Did you ever think, “What did we get ourselves into?" with Christian?

Only when he began to outgrow the shop. He was 35 lbs when we bought him, and by one year old he weighed 175 lbs. We were worried he might fall against a window and hurt himself and others. When we received the offer from George Adamson to rehabilitate him, we immediately accepted.

8. If you could do it all over again, would you?

No. First, I really do believe that Christian was a very special lion, and I would never be lucky enough to find another equally special lion. I have subsequently met many other lions, and none of them matched Christian’s accepting and trusting nature. Of course I am biased, but George Adamson, the “lion whisperer,” the man who knew more about lions than anyone else in the world, became totally besotted with Christian. Despite his first reservations about the chances of Christian succeeding in the wild, George wrote in his autobiography, My Pride and Joy, “The easiest lion to rehabilitate was a brave and mischievous little lion from London, Christian.”

9. Could you tell us a bit about your experience in Africa?

When we took Christian to Africa, it was my first visit to that magnificent continent. I was immediately entranced by the sights and smells. To see Christian in his right environment was so exciting. Suddenly he blended into the landscape. Instead of being “exotic” he instantly fit in, blending into the landscape.

10. What was your first thought when you saw Christian again after he'd spent a year in Africa?

First, his size! When we bought Christian he weighed 35 lbs. When we left him with George a year later, he weighed 175 lbs. Now, a year later, he was over 350 lbs. But we recognised him instantly. We also realised he had matured and was confident. The way he walked toward us was so impressive: calm, curious, unafraid, and certainly not in hunting “mode.” He did not stalk us—he just walked purposefully towards us . . . until we called him, and then he started to run. He was so excited.

Raising Christian has had an incredible impact on my life. Without Christian I would not have had such a unique introduction to Africa and the opportunity to meet and work with George Adamson. For the past 40 years I have worked to raise money for George, the George Adamson Trust, and other conservation charities. The renewed interest in Christian is helping continue to stress the importance of wildlife and conservation issues.
He was a magnificent lion, and it appears he still has a job to do.

For further information about Christian and the George Adamson Trust, visit these web sites: Wildlife Preservation Trust: http://www.georgeadamson.org/,
http://www.wildlifenow.com/, and http://www.christianthelionprints.com/.

You can also get the whole story in A Lion Called Christian: The Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion by John Rendall and Anthony Bourke, which is available at bookstores everywhere and is on the New York Times bestseller list.
If you haven't seen the A Lion Called Christian YouTube Video, check it out below under our New & Now section :)

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