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Virginia McKenna has been overwhelmed with presents for her 90th birthday this week but her favourite is a simple gift from her youngest son – a garden chair.

It means she can sit comfortably outside her home to take in the view of the Surrey hills, listen to birdsong and think of her late husband, actor and Born Free co-star Bill Travers.

Virginia says: “I’ve lived here so long and have enough things to last me a lifetime – whatever is left.

“It’s the most beautiful view and the reason we bought the house way back in 1957.

“When I miss Bill, I feel looking at the distant hills reminds me of him.”

Virginia’s deep love and appreciation for family, wildlife, nature and simple pleasures encapsulates her life.

Virginia McKenna, actress and founder of Born Free at Shamwari, South Africa in 2017
(Image: Eva-Lotta Jansson)

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She is a double Bafta-winning actress who starred in films such as A Town Like Alice and Carve Her Name with Pride.

Her list of co-stars reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood’s golden era.

They include Dirk Bogarde, Peter Finch, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland and Richard Burton.

Virginia achieved more perhaps than any of them. Her 1966 role as Joy Adamson alongside husband Bill in Oscar-winning Born Free awakened millions to the importance of wildlife conservation.

It was the true story of Joy and George Adamson, who reintroduced orphaned lion cub Elsa to the wild.

Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers in the 1966 classic film Born Free
(Image: Galloway News)

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Then Virginia lived out the film’s message by devoting her life to protecting wild animals.

“Born Free isn’t our story, just a story we became part of,” explains Virginia.

“Before Born Free, animals were species or numbers but never individuals.

But once Elsa’s story was told, then Dian Fossey started talking about gorillas and Jane Goodall about Frodo and the chimpanzees as individuals.

“Once you start thinking of an animal as an individual, with personality and likes and dislikes, you surely can’t treat them badly or disrespect them.

“The Mirror has long been a campaigner to end the use of wild animals in circuses, trophy hunting, the badger cull, and the end of dolphinaria.

“Look what we can achieve when we all work together.”

Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson in Born Free.
(Image: Dumfries and Galloway Standard)

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Virginia, Bill and their eldest son Will founded the Born Free Foundation not because of a lion, but because of the plight of Pole Pole, a female African elephant.

Aged two, she was given as a gift to London Zoo by the Kenyan government after starring in 1969 film An Elephant Called Slowly, alongside Virginia and Bill.

Their campaign to give her a better life in Africa was rejected by the zoo authorities, who eventually agreed to send Pole Pole to Whipsnade.

Tragically, Pole Pole was euthanised shortly after an aborted transfer.

Determined that her death should not be in vain, Virginia, Bill and Will launched Zoo Check – the charity that has evolved into Born Free.

Today, 37 years later, the charity has projects in more than 20 countries.

Virginia McKenna with one of her co-stars in Born Free
(Image: PA)

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It runs campaigns in the areas of individual wild animal rescue and care, wildlife policy, compassionate conservation, education and more.

Virginia once declined an offer to tour America in The King and I with Yul Brynner, a role that had won her an Olivier Award, to focus instead on family and charity.

She said: “The red carpet holds no thrill for me. We never liked to go to posh places. It was the work and the company I loved.

"But family is most precious of all, and doing my best to end the suffering of wild animals is incredibly important to me.”

Virginia endured criticism for her beliefs decades before conservationism was cool. And her devotion to the cause only increased through the decades.

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She said: “Seeing the ghastly way some animals are kept often moves me to tears. I have watched Tiger King and I think it’s deeply, deeply shocking.

“It’s outrageous that anyone in this day and age… would be allowed to have captive wild creatures. The young people who write to us feel the same.”

But Virginia has great optimism for the future of wildlife protection.

She said: “People like Bella Lack and Greta Thunberg are so courageous because they come in for criticism from people who don’t see anything wrong with keeping animals in cages.”

Virginia, awarded an OBE in 2004 for her contribution to the arts and animal welfare, has taken time recently to reflect on her extraordinary life.

Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna feed a baby lion on the set of Born Free
(Image: EMPICS Entertainment)

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She remembers: “There have been some very special days, like when I married Bill all those years ago in 1957, when we came here to live, the birth of our four children… everything to do with family makes me happy.”

Big birthday celebrations with her 11 grandchildren, including actress Lily Travers, and her five great-grandchildren have been split into smaller affairs as the pandemic means her family “can’t come together in one big huddle”.

Covid blocked another wish too.

She explains: “If I could wave a wand I would go to Kenya one more time to be in the land where Born Free was born, to visit Elsa’s grave. We had booked a trip but it was cancelled. I go there in my head and in my dreams.”

*Register for Virginia McKenna’s online birthday event at www.givergy.uk/HappyBirthdayVirginia.

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