Happy Birthday Christian!

August 12, 2011

Christian, January 1970. Photograph by Derek Cattani.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTIAN!  Christian was born in a small zoo in Ilfracombe, Devon, U.K. on the 12th August 1969. For some mysterious reason so many years later his story is still capturing people’s hearts and imaginations, and I get even more mail about him now describing the effect he has had on people’s lives.  His extraordinary personality and loving nature remain so fresh in my mind.  Memories are kept alive and revitalised by the superb photographic record which so easily conveys to others Christian’s magic.

We have been asked what we think the revival of interest in Christian means.  In an interview, 0ff the top of my head, I said I thought it was “a cry for Africa”  from Christian – perhaps a cry from an animal world under threat, and a world facing great challenges through climate change, water shortages and shrinking animal habitats etc.  There are 70% fewer lions in Africa since Christian’s time and through him we have been given the chance to talk about frightening statistics like this – happening to species everywhere.

Looking back, Christian seemed to have been  marked for a special destiny and we were all just stepping stones along his journey – back to Africa and his freedom no less, after 5 generations of captivity in Europe.  He has become a symbol of human-animal relationships, an ambassador for conservation and animal welfare, and a heart-warming story at a time when there is great economic uncertainty and people need cheering up.  I don’t entirely understand all the psychological aspects of the phenomenon  – perhaps I’m too close to it, but primarily it is about the reciprocated love for some humans that Christian felt, demonstrated, and remembered.

Christian's favourite spot on the stairs. Photograph by Derek Cattani.

Many emails or comments on the blog mention that we “rescued” Christian, or how sad we must have been to leave him.  We joke he was an “impulse buy”, and for me it was part adventure and fun, part pushing one’s luck, part rescue.  We thought we could look after him as well as anyone else at his young age, and we did.  More naively, we thought we could secure his future as well as anyone.  Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna were certainly “rescuing” him, from London, from a possible life in a zoo, and probably from us!  We did come to realise how by buying Christian we were participating in and perpetuating the trade in exotic animals, which became illegal in the U.K. in 1976.

With Christian growing too big for us to physically handle, it was a miracle that the opportunity to return him to Africa, to George Adamson, occurred.  So while leaving him there – three times – was very upsetting, this was absolutely the best solution – him taking his chance at a natural life, although it was very dangerous for him.  We thought we would be continuing to visit George and Christian.  While it was indeed a great adventure, a joy and a privilege, it had also been a huge responsibility and a 100% commitment to ensure everyone’s well being and safety.

Christian and Ace at Dorking 1970. Photograph by Derek Cattani.

DEREK CATTANI:  One major reason why Christian is still so vivid in my mind, and why Christian is loved so widely, is in addition to the two documentaries made about him at the time, his life in England and return to Africa was so beautifully photographed by well known London photographer Derek Cattani.

The media was interested in Christian, but invariably a photograph of a yawn would appear like a snarl, and we were very fortunate to meet Derek Cattani in January 1970 who became Christian’s friend and photographer.  Derek has had the most illustrious career, including photographing the Queen, PMs and Presidents, Nureyev and Elizabeth Taylor, sporting stars and historical moments at Olympic Games.  He has said however, that by awakening his concern for animals Christian “changed my life”.

I asked Derek would he choose a favourite photograph of Christian for this birthday blog.  He responded that it was too difficult – he loves them all!  He described how he just gradually got to know and be trusted by Christian by quietly and patiently spending time with him.  He began when Christian was 5 months old.  I have enjoyed looking at the photographs through Derek and Christian’s eyes and the lovely relationship that developed.  Christian is often looking directly at him, and not just out of curiosity.  Indeed, he always seemed “ready for my close up Mr. de Mille”!

Derek wrote “Christian had the most penetrating eyes I have ever experienced either animal or human.  It was as if he was looking beyond a space in time, an adventure yet to unfold, we would make eye contact and he would at times focus through me, as if to be watching the next episode of his life in Africa, which we were all to experience later on that year.”  This is why I particularly like the photograph at the top of this blog. It shows Christian’s all seeing, all knowing, enigmatic and beautiful eyes. It is also one of the earliest photographs of him – at five months old he is just about to leave his baby cub days behind, and beginning to grow into his big ears and paws.

I have always loved the photograph of Christian sitting on the stairs at Sophistocat. This was his favourite spot and we could get on with our jobs nearly forgetting he was sitting there, watching everything.

I have included the (bottom) photograph of the garden at the Moravian Close because of so many great memories. He loved playing there every afternoon and was completely safe, so we could also relax and enjoy it. He looks boyish, with his soccer ball at the ready, if punctured.  The “hug” photograph at Dorking has only been seen rarely and is showing its age after being pinned to my mother’s kitchen wall for many years.

KIMBA THE WHITE LION:  I have finally watched some episodes and I love Kimba!  I didn’t watch Kimba when I was growing up in the 1960s when it was the first animated television series made in Japan in colour.  I suspect it was very innovative animation, and I love some of the influences, like Japanese wood blocks.  Unlike much contemporary animation, Kimba is just so nice and conciliatory, yet firm.  Christian too was like a prince and although the centre of attention, he was very cooperative and friendly.  Kimba and Christian were both very smart. They both wanted to live in peace, make friends, “doing good, doing right”.  There are some uncanny narrative and visual overlaps – their returns to Africa, Kimba with Roger, Christian with us, Kimba in Paris, Christian in London etc.

Craig Andersen’s Kimba website which now has a lot more information about Christian, is where Lisa Williams first found Christian’s footage, and she posted it on YouTube.  Later TadManly2 added the Whitney Houston backtrack and edit which contributed to sending it viral.

Craig wrote to me last year (Late Feb 2010 blog) and told me that the creator Osama Tezuka wrote the story in 1950 to explore the idea of animals and humans living as one society.

“Ever since I first read Christian’s story back in 1972 I felt Christian had an important place in the world, as an “ambassador” from the animal world to the human world.”  It seems that Christian was the personification of the bridge between the animal and human world that the Japanese creator had envisaged with Kimba.  And it was on Kimba’s website that Christian was rediscovered in 2006 which lead to Christian’s story being told to new generations.

NEW WEBSITE:  To celebrate Christian’s birthday we have developed a new and more comprehensive website www.alioncalledchristian.com.au.  There are many Derek Cattani photographs of Christian, Christian’s story, information on books, films and TV appearances, recent news updates and interviews etc.  We’d love you to leave any comments about Christian – or tell us your own animal stories! You are contributing to Christian’s story still unfolding by your interest and we thank you.

But most importantly today, Happy Birthday Christian!  There is no way we could ever forget you or stop loving you.

Christian in the garden at the Moravian Close 1970. Photograph by Derek Cattani.

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