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 bornfree.org.uk

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