The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 12, 2009

Book review: No ‘Lion’: Updated book is heartwarming tale

“A Lion Called Christian”

By Anthony Bourke and John Rendall

Last summer, a heart-tugging YouTube clip went viral, forwarded to person after person around the globe until it made headlines. You might have seen it: It featured a reunion between two young men and an adult lion, with Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” as the soundtrack. Definitely a Kleenex moment. Even now, thinking about it, I get a little misty-eyed.

The story behind that clip is told in “A Lion Called Christian,” originally published in 1971 but recently updated and re-released. The book is a fast read and, while not as sentimental as the YouTube clip, is heart-warming and fascinating.

In 1969, friends Anthony Bourke and John Rendall, newly arrived from Australia, were sightseeing in London’s famous Harrod’s when they came upon two lion cubs for sale. They immediately felt a connection with the male cub, whom they dubbed Christian. After some discussion, they purchased him for the modern equivalent of $3,500 dollars, intent on saving him from the gawking shoppers and life in a cage.

If you can get past the ethical concerns about trafficking in exotic animals (remember, this was 40 years ago), their early days with Christian are rather amusing. Home was an apartment above the furniture store where they worked, appropriately named Sophistocat. At night, Christian slept in the heated basement on a pile of blankets and used a lion-sized litterbox. During the day, he was free to roam around the store, where his presence attracted the attention of customers, who were asked, “Do you have any objection to lions?” His daily exercise consisted of playing in a cemetery surrounded by a tall brick wall.

The laid-back lion cub enjoyed being carried and cuddled but was not encouraged to use his superior strength. “We had not told Christian that he was a lion,” the authors cheekily write. “We thought this knowledge would only lead to regrettable lionlike behavior.” But by the time he was 8 months old and 130 pounds, Christian was growing too bored and too big for life in London.

A fortuitous meeting with the stars and director of the hit film “Born Free” provided a welcome opportunity. They proposed sending Christian to Kenya. There he would be put into the care of George Adamson, whose work with lions had inspired “Born Free,” and rehabilitated before his release into the wild. “It was as if a prison sentence had suddenly, simply, been lifted. Of all the lions ever born in Europe, Christian had been offered an unprecedented reprieve. He was to go back where he belonged.”

In 1970, Bourke and Rendall traveled to Kenya with Christian and stayed during the early days of his rehabilitation. As time passed, Christian became comfortable with his surroundings. He learned to hunt and take care of himself, and even joined a pride. Confident in their lion’s progress, Bourke and Rendall returned to London but continued to stay in touch with Adamson. In 1971, they returned to Kenya, as a film crew wanted to shoot their reunion with Christian.

In describing that event, the authors excerpt a letter Bourke wrote to his parents: “He stared hard at us for a few seconds, and then slowly moved closer for a good look. He stared intently. … We couldn’t wait any longer and called him. He immediately started to run down towards us. Grunting with excitement, this ENORMOUS lion jumped all over us, but he was very gentle.”

The friends saw Christian one more time, during a visit in 1972, and they again received a warm response, again recounted in Bourke’s letter home: “(He) jumped up on me only once as before on his hind legs and he did it extremely gently. He licked my face as he towered over me. He nearly crushed John by trying to sit on his lap!”

Early in 1973, Christian crossed a river and headed toward a national park, never to be seen again. Regretting nothing, Bourke and Rendall write that they hope he lived another 10 years and established a pride of his own so that his descendants live on in Kenya.

They seem genuinely stunned and touched by the explosion of interest in their story since the YouTube clip went viral. They’ve used this renewed attention to appear on television and accept speaking engagements, where they tell Christian’s story, talk about wildlife conservation and champion the work of George Adamson.

Reading “A Lion Called Christian” definitely made me want to surf over to YouTube and watch that clip again. Pass the Kleenex, please.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.