How We Met: Virginia McKenna & Lauren St John

'She has a purity of vision which has given me the courage to voice my convictions'

Lauren St John, 44

An award-winning children's author whose books are heavily influenced by her childhood growing up on a wildlife reserve, St John lives in London and is a patron of the Born Free Foundation

Virginia's performance in [the 1966 film] Born Free changed how millions of people thought about wild animals; lions were not just things to be hunted and slaughtered. I connected very strongly with the film, as I grew up on a game reserve in Zimbabwe and was obsessed with saving animals. All my children's books have a conservation theme, and two years ago when I ran a school conservation project called Animals Are Not Rubbish, I contacted the Born Free Foundation, and they got involved.

Within hours of meeting Virginia I felt she was a kindred spirit. I was relating to someone who felt as I felt about animals; that all sentient begins are as precious and worthwhile as humans. Virginia invited me to accompany her on a trip to Cyprus to rescue and re-home a family of leopards, which she and her late husband Bill had been fighting to do for 19 years.

When we got there, these creatures, which had been in captivity for so long, were in a desperate state. The mother was throwing herself against the bars, pacing and snarling. One of the daughters, Roxanna, just lay on the concrete floor. Virginia was in tears, and I was too. We kept comforting each other and I got close to her so quickly. It was incredibly moving when we finally got them to the Shamwari Game Reserve [in South Africa]. I set free Roxanna and Virginia set free the mother leopard, and it was an amazing moment.

We were at the game reserve for five days and spent a lot of time talking about life and death. One night I remember saying to her how I worried a lot about dying, but Virginia has no fear of things like that. She's utterly at peace with passing on and talking about it with her helped me to be more like that too. She talks about Bill like he is still with us; she makes him a part of her life constantly, which I think is a moving tribute.

You'd think after years of witnessing people's unbelievable cruelty to animals she'd have become cynical, but she's not. She's a person of hope, with a childlike purity of vision, which has given me the courage to voice my convictions.

Virginia McKenna, 80

An actress, McKenna won a Bafta for 'A Town Like Alice' in 1957, but is perhaps best known for her portrayal of conservationist Joy Adamson in the 1966 Oscar-winning film 'Born Free'. After a string of films, she set up the animal-rescue organisation the Born Free Foundation in 1984. She lives in Dorking

We met only two years ago, but we're already soulmates; we have the same values and philosophies. Lauren got in touch with Born Free for a school project she was running about endangered animals, and we launched it with her. As I got to know her, we discovered we shared a lot in common. She can't bear to see animals unable to express themselves as they would in the wild, where they should be; not in a cage in a zoo.

When she told me how passionate she was about leopards, I asked if she wanted to join us on a rescue of three leopards from a zoo in Cyprus: two 16-year-old daughters and their 20-year-old mother.

After we arrived they were sedated for the journey to the Shamwari Game Reserve and Lauren joined them in the cage, calmly watching, listening and learning; not a lot of people get to do that and I think she felt privileged. When we arrived at the game reserve we released the leopards out of their travelling crates, each of us lifting one door. I looked at her and she looked at me and she was stirred; I knew how much it meant to her.

She's a typical writer – reserved and quite private – so when she does say something it means a lot. I'm not an extrovert, either, so with Lauren there are lots of comfortable silences, which is nice. She's been over a number of times to my cottage and I often make her dinner. We're both vegetarians so I'll make soup, quiche, apple crumble, and we sit by the fire and talk about animals.

Some people join our organisation then fade away, but Lauren will always be with us. Last year she helped rescue two dolphins that had been living in a disgusting swimming pool in Turkey; it might not have meant so much to someone else but I knew it did to Lauren.

What I love about Lauren is how she's reaching out to children by writing stories about how we relate to animals. It's a wonderful way of spreading ideas without the children feeling as though they're being preached at.

I had my 80th birthday a few weeks ago at the Savoy Hotel, with a room full of friends, but it was particularly wonderful to have Lauren there, and her gift was so touching: she dedicated her new book to me.

'A Laura Marlin Mystery: Kidnap in the Caribbean', by Lauren St John (Orion Childrens, £9.99), is out now. For more about Born Free, visit

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England