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Virginia McKenna of Born Free

Actress and wildlife conservationist Virginia McKenna speaks to the personal freedom that binds us together

By Mary Ann Cooper


Virginia McKenna and her late husband, Bill Travers, achieved worldwide fame in 1966 playing real-life conservationists Joy and George Adamson in the film Born Free. The film brought them critical acclaim and inspired them to become wildlife documentary filmmakers and lifelong wildlife-conservation activists. Although Born Free sparked Virginia and Bill’s shared commitment to protecting wild animals and keeping them in the wild, it was the miserable death of a young female elephant named Pole Pole that led the couple, along with their son Will, to create Born Free Foundation — an international wildlife protection and research charity.

“Bill was quite well known when we did Born Free, but he quit acting to respond to things that touched him deeply. He had a great compassion not only for animals but also for people. Will is very like Bill in the way he thinks about things. He’s an inspirational leader.”

Virginia still volunteers for Born Free Foundation. She also cherishes time spent with her four children, ten grandchildren, and two great grandchildren — all of whom she clearly adores.

“It’s absolutely joyful,” Virginia says of being a grandmother. “I do things individually with them. I try to do things they are interested in.”

Born Free’s Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers

This respect for individuality and personal freedom seems to sum up Virginia’s life philosophy, permeating the causes she champions as well as her relationships with her children and grandchildren.“You learn as they get older to let them be themselves. You can say only so much to people in life. Also, I don’t like discord. There’s enough discord out there in the world without having it in your own family. I don’t want my personal life to reflect that in any way.”

A mutual respect for individuality also contributed to Virginia’s marriage. “We were very fortunate in our relationship with each other. One of the things that perhaps made it last so long, as well as loving each other, was that we understood we needed to be able to express ourselves as individuals. We both knew that by giving people space and a sort of freedom binds you more closely.”

Virginia’s children have followed their parent’s streak for individuality and given her beautiful grandchildren. Justin, a film director, has three children: Jackman (9), Emily (7), and Benjamin (1½). Daniel, a model and diver who works on underwater films, has two children: Luca (9) and Bee (4). Louise, who lives in Australia, has four grown children — Lindon (26), Ashlin (24), Geordie (20) and Tess (18) — and two grandchildren, Alex (5) and Emma (3). Will, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation, has two children: Lily (22) and William (Wij, 19).

Virginia McKenna and son Will

Virginia and granddaughter Lily share a mutual admiration. Virginia says of Lily, “She’s ravishingly beautiful and really quite stunning. . . . [and] a very good natural actress. She’s got a lot of potential.”Lily says, “Everyone I’ve ever met who has talked to Granny is always impressed by how kind and gentle, generous, elegant, and poised she is, which always makes me proud. She was always successful as a gorgeous actress, but I admire that she achieved something above and beyond her own self-interest.”Lily says her grandmother has also told her stories, and she has wonderful childhood memories of being with her. “One day Granny took me and all my cousins on a mini adventure on a blow-up boat, and we ate chips and crisps, and had different names, and played different roles. It was a really lovely day just exploring. She always seemed to give us a taste for adventure.”

Virginia encourages grandparents to share their personal experiences with grandchildren. “Grandparents can talk about things not only from an historical standpoint, with books, but [also] from their own experience of life and how they used to see things.”

“I want my grandchildren to grow up to be sensitive to other creatures. Keeping wild creatures in confined spaces with incorrect socializing is very damaging and deeply sad. We don’t want our children and grandchildren growing up thinking that’s okay. We want them to grow up feeling much more compassionate and understanding of wild creatures.”

Compassionate, understanding, sensitive — words that describe Virginia McKenna’s philosophy for living and this remarkable woman herself.


Mary Ann Cooper


Mary Ann Cooper is a celebrity journalist and the author of Grandeur: The Personal Reflections of Famous Grandparents.



Are the Animals in Your Local Zoo Healthy and Happy?

Next time you take your grandchildren to the zoo, you might want to take along “Zoo Check — a downloadable and printable form that helps you to assess the well-being of the animals. During or after your visit to the zoo, you can use the form to teach you grandkids about the humane treatment of animals in captivity. Later, you can send the form to Born Free USA / Animal Protection Institute.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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