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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24 Responses to “Happy Birthday Christian!”

  1. shiela andreasson Says:

    I was born in 5agusti 1981.i was watching documentary film about “a lion named christian in internet”on a svt2 in sweden.
    I just wonder, how old are christian now…and the owner.it is possible again to meet each other again?.

  2. Mubin Says:

    My father loves Christian very much and has your video of him on his phone. Thank you for this beautiful love story.

  3. Rishi, from India Says:

    I miss this Lion so much and he’s ruined the Whitney Houston song for me because every time I listen to the song I think of this beautiful feline.
    Christian was not an ordinary lion but that’s because he was cared for by two such extraordinary people.


    • Re: Rishi ~ I know what you’re saying, it’s the same for me, only the first song & video of Christian I heard on youtube was sent in by johnluvbaebo, with Aerosmith singing ‘ I don’t want to Miss a Thing’. And I’d never heard it before, granted the last part of it sounds as if the singer’s really agitated! but this song really got to me, thinking of the time in Africa, when they slept close together the three of them, Christian on the bed between them, and I can visualise them staying awake listening to his breathing. The words to the song are lovely and naturally it reminds me of Christian still. I sent to Amazon for two CD’s of it, one in the car..and one in the home. But try not to think about Christian ruining your listening to the Houston song..think of it as your favourite song still ~ with an added bonus! as sad as it may be.

  4. Carolyn Says:

    Always and Forever in my heart to my beloved Christian …… will never let the world forget there was this amazing lion called Christian. Thank you a million times Ace for sharing this with us. Not a day goes by when I do not think of Christian…. what more you who was so fortunate as to share his early years.. I would fill a room with Christian but alas! the pictures are so expensive, so I dream instead of another time, another place and a joyous meeting with this precious Lion called Christian.
    And so we also remember Baba Ya Simba George Adamson. Thank you for all the years you spent with these beautiful animals and for making them a part of your life and sharing that with us. His anniversary is also with us now. I am sure he is with his Lion companions in Paradise. RIP George and all the others.

  5. evelin Says:

    Every single animal is special. Each of them is braver and tougher than many human beings. They have their own stories and adventures, but no one would have interested in understanding them or caring of them before they die quietly. Every cattle, every bird… is unique and beautiful, is with light in his/her eyes. I once had a fish who would watch me leave for school every early morning although he was extremely sleepy. I didn’t realize fish should not live in fish tank until I grew up, but he was my very dear friend.

    May all animals be protected and safe, be happy and free.
    May love fills the earth, awaken all humans’ soul.
    May Christian’s story continues to spread everywhere, warms everyone’s heart.

  6. Nicole Says:

    Happy Birthday Christian,

    How you have captured my heart. You are truly unforgettable and we are so lucky to be able to enjoy all that is left of you so many years on. If only you were still here and if only you knew..

    Nicole

  7. Judy Says:

    Christian as a kitten was too too divine

  8. Carolyn Says:

    Hugs and Kisses to our beautiful Lion Christian and with you always and forever. Love you so my darling Lion. Thanks Ace…. you and J must have loved him tremendously…. this truly exceptional animal who thought he was a human being. Paradise Regained.

  9. Hélène Says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTIAN !!

    The most beautiful, exceptional and unforgettable lion in the world !
    Most grateful to Ace and John for sharing their moving and so beautiful story.
    Thank you Christian for the fantastic legacy you left to the world.
    In my heart forever.

    Hélène XX


  10. Hello Ace,
    It was great to read your memories of Christian and those photos are fantastic.
    Last Friday I was out for dinner with my 13 yr old goddaughter. I asked her if she knew about Christian the Lion. She told me she had watched the documentary and responded with ‘his story is amazing’. It is her birthday this week, so I mentioned that it was Christian’s that day, knowing she’d enjoy the proximity of his to hers. We laughed at the synchronicity of C being born under the star sign of Leo and then she sang happy birthday to him at full volume as we walked along Bourke Street.
    thanks Ace, and best wishes
    Michele

  11. BW Says:

    I am so glad that the world has been given a chance to know that once upon a time there was a lion like Christian. He was lucky that you and your friend John took him in, and you are so lucky to have been his early caretakers and seen him growing, as well as later having the assurance that he would live in his native environment.

    Lovely story all around, and Happy Birthday to that beautiful guy.

  12. Barb Heath Says:

    This iPhone lends to typos. “…He was an animal anthropologist.” sorry!

  13. Barb Heath Says:

    Beautiful post – it really says something. Your passion is really there anything having to do with your bond with Christian, Ace.

    On a corny note my oldest and best pal’s mom’s b’day is 8-12. Her 3 sons & my friend & husband are all in from out if town to wish Dorothy well. They are Canadian, moved here early 60’s. She is a very Lion Leo the lion. Very “I AM”. Kind to children, also. She was not to be ignored! I got roared at a few times too. Strong birthday.

    Am currently reading “My Pride & Joy”. George Adamson was one a kind, no one like him. A very gritty read, but uncommonly self-revealing. I’ve was an animal anthropologist.

    Thank you again, Ace for all you have shared. Very Adamson of you!

    Barb Heath


  14. Christian was definitely ‘meant’ to be with Ace and John, nobody else could have given him such love or brought him up to be so loving and unbelievably tame and understanding. Seeing him here hugging you Ace..is just proof of the love he had for you and you for him, you can see how he is just melting weakly into your arms..just look at his eyes. This sends tingles down my spine. This must happen to all who look at these photographs, they are exeptionally wonderful. How can he ever be forgotten..well, how can the three of you ever be forgotten!


  15. Just to Wish you a warm and loving ‘Happy Birthday’ Christian, how could we ever forget you! xx

  16. Jilly Says:

    So wish Christian and George were still around – hard to believe that it’s 42 years since Christian was born and 22 since George was murdered. I’ll never forget them.


  17. You ponder what it is about Christian that captivates people. I like to think that, deep inside, people want –and need– to remember our connection with all the life around us. Love is truly universal.

    You mention Christian’s eyes. His eyes come through in photographs like no other lion’s I have ever seen. I am completely captivated by his eyes, and his expression, and his body language. It’s like he had such a wonderful personality that it just shines through each photo.

    Thinking of the lions I’ve been privileged to meet, if they hadn’t already given up on humans (because many of them had been abused), if they wanted to get to know me, their eyes were indeed penetrating. It was like they were willing to be totally open to me and wanted me to be totally open to them; like they could see into my soul, even the parts of me I hadn’t made peace with. It was a bit unnerving, for that latter reason, but there was no maliciousness from them, no attempt at domination, just a desire to connect.

    In fact, that desire to connect relates to the first line I heard when I accidentally first tuned in to Kimba the White Lion; Kimba said, “If only I could speak to them, make them understand…”

    Christian still has the power to reach people and hopefully the seeds of understanding will spread. People have been taught to be emotionally distant from animals and this has led to tremendous suffering. If people can connect with animals again, all life on Earth will benefit.

    Happy birthday, Christian. May you never be forgotten.

    • Barb Heath Says:

      Craig, your prose is so eloquent, as to be quotable. I will somehow print this off in bigger type & post it where I & others can see it. Frameable words. The animals I have worked with in the past have been astoundingly “direct” with eyes, thoughts, hearing, smell, I was in thrall of their programmed intelligence & the honor & love they bestowed upon me to help them. It was often times fun & madcap (walking dogs the size of a small horse) but also sacred. I told every critter I set eyes on hello, mommy loves you. Well, because I did. In their eye contact and fresh bowl of water either that helped or more contact was given. I was addicted to my volunteering. They could’t talk but their social network was inspired. It was different from but certainly not inferior to ours! Mankind is the screw up, not them. Working with them made THE biggest impact on me of anything I have ever done. This includes volunteering at Children’s Hospital here in Detroit, even the premature babies in what seemed like God’s laboratory. Animals are competent guides & companions to us. Well, here’s my pretty cat Delilah at my arm wanting to know why I am writing about them. Time for a tiny bit of cream. Thank you for your post, Craig, & allowing my response. Blessings to all.

  18. Randi Daeger Says:

    The picture of Christian on his step is still the background picture on my computer…..has been up there for four yers now and will stay! He and his ‘guys’ have my heart! Long Live Christian and his legacy.

  19. Stephane Sauve Says:

    Happy Birthday Christian… You will be well remembered due to your fellow owners and friends who took such good care of you. Your release into the wild is one of the most insparational stories I have ever read. I wish to thank John and Ace for the amazing book they wrote. And thank you for having the forthought of documenting Christians life.

    Once again Happy Birthday

  20. julie selby Says:

    what you and John did for Christian – thank you so much.

    You had the foresight to look after him and let him go when the time was right.

    God Bless you both xxx

  21. Carolyn Says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY BELOVED CHRISTIAN. MY ASLAN. DREAM OF HIM SO OFTEN AND YES, HE IS NOW A WHITE LION (INDICATING THAT HE HAS PASSED ON ). ALWAYS BELOVED. REST WELL MY DARLING FRIEND UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN IN PARADISE.


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