Betty Leslie-Melville was known as "the Giraffe Lady". An extrovert personality and self-confessed "total giraffe junkie", she loved wild animals and dedicated herself to trying to preserve them. In the 1970s, she and her husband Jock began to raise giraffes in the grounds of their manor house near Nairobi in Kenya. Their first adopted baby, Daisy, became the best-known giraffe in the world. In 1979 it even starred in a film, The Last Giraffe, starring Susan Anspach as Betty and Simon Ward as Jock. However Betty hated the film. "It was the worst experience of my life," she recalled. In making the film, "the trainer killed two baby giraffes".
Jock and Betty first heard about the plight of the endangered Rothschild's giraffe at a dinner party in 1972. A distinctive race with a dark-brown patterned coat, white legs and no fewer than five horns, the animal had been hunted almost to extinction. The last 120 Rothschild's giraffes in the world lived on a large cattle ranch in the west of Kenya which was about to be taken over by the government and carved up into farms. After much lobbying, the Leslie-Melvilles managed to get hold of a baby Rothschild's, Daisy, which they hand-raised. They were among the first people ever to rear a wild giraffe, and possibly the only ones to succeed with this particular variety.
Following their success with Daisy, the Leslie-Melvilles acquired four more baby giraffes, eventually establishing their own small breeding herd. They regarded the animals almost as part of the family. The baby giraffes were often fed mouth-to-mouth with carrots and biscuits. Meanwhile, in 1972, the couple founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, with branches in the United States and Kenya. They raised money by lecturing in the US, hosting receptions and dinners, and running auctions. At least once, they even auctioned themselves as a maid and a butler. The winner ordered them to serve a dinner party which included steaks of lion. Good-humouredly, the Leslie-Melvilles did so - although they did not partake.
Their efforts eventually saved part of the Rothschild's giraffe's natural habitat. Other giraffes were moved to secure national parks. There are now some 500 animals, four times as many as 30 years ago, and their future is reasonably secure.
As part of their fund-raising efforts, Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville collaborated on a series of books about animals, most of them characterised by Betty's rather breathless style. Raising Daisy Rothschild (1977) - "the story of two delightful young people and how they raised and grew to love a young giraffe . . . or two" - became a best-seller. More animal stories followed: Elephant Have Right of Way (1973), There's a Rhino in the Rose Bed, Mother (1973), That Nairobi Affair (1975) and Walter Warthog (1989), a children's story about the tame warthog they named after their friend Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchorman. The books helped to raise more funds for the Giraffe Centre they set up at Langata in 1983.
After Jock's death from brain cancer the following year, Betty wrote A Falling Star (1986), her account of the "twenty magical, scintillating, exuberant years full of mutual joy and adventure and accomplishment" she had spent with her "Jockieduk". As a profile in her home-town Baltimore Sun put it, she had "scampered across two continents like the heroine of a picaresque novel, leaving a glittering wake of crazy and glamorous stories".
Born Betty McDonnell in Baltimore, in 1927, she attended Johns Hopkins University, then became a model, appearing in a beer advertisement, before setting up and running a nursery school with her sister. She first visited Africa in 1958 with her second husband, Dancy Bruce. She fell in love with the "Technicolor world" of Kenya and the two settled there, Dancy setting up a non-hunting safari business. The couple divorced after Betty met Jock Leslie-Melville, a Kenyan citizen and grandson of a Scottish earl, who ran a tour company. In 1974 the couple purchased the manor at Langati, a stone house built in 1932 by a toffee magnate, Sir David Duncan, as the centrepiece of a farm for breeding horses. The manor stands in 150 acres of private forest and natural grassland only eight miles from the centre of Nairobi.
After Jock's death Betty Leslie-Melville turned their home into a "grande résidence" where paying guests would often find an inquisitive giraffe poking its head through a second-floor window. "Giraffe Manor" became a fixture for wealthy tourists seeking giraffe-related experiences, among them Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Marlon Brando and Brooke Shields. The Giraffe Centre, which has a special walkway and thatched tower where giraffes can be hand-fed, is now run by Betty's son Rick Anderson.
Though she often visited the Giraffe Centre, Betty returned to the US in the 1980s, when she married Vice-Admiral George Steele, whom she had met on safari. Summing up her life, she remarked: "I have one philosophy. You are only sorry for what you don't do, so try everything on for size and wear what fits."
- More about:
- Ugly Betty