Born Free Beyond the Bars Speech

Will Travers Beyond the bars speech

Born Free recently held our Gala Dinner, Beyond the Bars in London. For those of you who couldn’t attend, here is a transcript of the speech Will gave that night (We’d love to here your comments. Ed).

“Welcome to Beyond the Bars – so many friends old and new, thank you all for coming.

Before I start I want to tell you some news. Two years ago at our centre in Ethiopia we rescued a tawny eagle. She couldn’t fly. With the help of one of our supporters here tonight, Dr Pepper, and others, we built a flight aviary. Every day that eagle, Karria, which means Pepper in Amharic, has been practising and growing stronger. Last week we took one of the walls down and today, exactly today, Karria, flew to freedom.

Last night I flew back from Geneva where the Born Free international trade team, including our colleagues from Born Free USA, are enduring another round of meetings is debating the future of threatened species – cheetah, whales, rhino, parrots, great apes, lions.

Other colleagues have recently returned from key field projects, in Ethiopia – where we have been helping protect the Ethiopian Wolf – in Cameroon where wild chimpanzees and elephants and many other species are under threat. In Kenya, the Born Free Kenya Team is focussed, as you know on reducing persecution pressure on wild lions and stepping up efforts to protect them in their heartlands. Members of the Born Free team will soon be heading for India where tigers still stand on the brink. And yet others are working hard in Sri Lanka where, despite a high density human population, wild elephants number more than 5,000.

These are all examples of the way that Born Free reaches beyond the bars, imagines and delivers the world we wish to see, a vision that has sustained us for nearly 34 years.

But, for a moment, I want to take you back to the very beginning.

The death of an individual, solitary, female, wild-caught elephant at the London Zoo. That was the start of our organisation… your organisation.

The destruction of Pole Pole, one animal, the last African elephant in the zoo, like the story of Elsa, touched the hearts of millions. It caused people to pause for a moment and think about what a lifetime in captivity means.

As visitors to zoos, our experience – good or bad – is influence by the knowledge that, at the end of the day – literally – we can leave and go home, to the cinema, to see friends and family. We are free, at least to some extent, to choose how we live our lives.

Almost without exception, the inmates in the zoo, or circus, or aquarium never leave. They must live their lives of profound compromise every day.

That sense of despair and hopelessness is what energised us in those early days and what energises us today. It’s what so outraged my father that he spent much of the last 3 years of his life travelling Europe, filming, witnessing, exposing what life for inmates in some of Europe’s 3,500 zoos was really like.

And, as always, however big the zoo, however complex the story, it always came back to the individual – for, like us, each animal is unique and precious and special. Each one deserves not just to be a statistic or a number but a creature with character and personality – an individual that demands our consideration.

Some people say that animals cannot feel in the same way that we do.

But the more we study and research and observe, the more we know that they do – whether it’s Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, Ian Redmond and gorillas, Paul Spong and orca, Claudio Sillero and Ethiopian wolves, Cynthia Moss and elephants, Roger Mugford with our cats and dogs… we know that the animals we care for and care about have feelings akin to ours, that they suffer and grieve and rejoice and, yes, maybe even love.

And if that is that case then it is our moral responsibility to make sure that they do not suffer at our hand unnecessarily and that they are accorded a life worth living.

I will conclude with the brief story of just one animal:

Kimba…. an elderly lioness held by a private individual in Italy.

Close your eyes and you can almost imagine the scene.

Twenty years ago – Kimba was one of the first lions we ever rescued. Her back was bent, her joints swollen. John, our vet, said it was touch and go. She had lived in her 3 metre by 3 metre cage for her entire life. Her owner, unable to get in and clean her prison, tossed her packs of food, still wrapped in plastic. When we found her, she was standing atop a one metre pile of waste, plastic and excrement.

We could have put her down but we decided to give her a chance.

She came to the centre we then operated in Kent where the Born Free Team gently placed her into a heated house on a bed of straw. Good food, clean water. She must have wondered what had happened.

A few days later she stepped out onto grass, perhaps for the first time in her life. The sun shone. She seemed inquisitive, mesmerised, relaxed.

But her movements were slow, lethargic, stilted.

She went inside – and did not come out again.

A few short weeks after her rescue, Kimba died. Her body was riddled with cancer.

Was it worth it? All that effort for a few short weeks of love and affection and respect?

Absolutely it was. It confirmed our bond of trust, our pledge of compassion, our profound and abiding belief in the importance of the individual. Who would not swap years of life in the dark for a few precious moments bathed in sunlight?

Our brief encounter with Kimba came just a decade after we produced our book of collected essays – Beyond The Bars. To celebrate that milestone we have re-published the original book full extraordinary contributions by a range of contributors including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Richard Adams, Bill Jordan, Spike Milligan, Arjan Singh, Mary Midgely, Hugo van Lawick and my late father, together with a new chapter by Born Free’s Head of Welfare and Care, Chris Draper and a new Foreword by Virginia.

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, there is one copy for each and every one of you tonight – something to inform and inspire.

Changing the way the world looks at and treats wild animals takes time. We have been working on it for more than three decades and I believe real progress has been made. But it will take more than a lifetime, my lifetime, the key is to be consistent, committed and compassionate. Those are the values that underpin Born Free and everything we do – from day one, in a room in Chelsea when I was just 24 years old – to today when Born Free has become – with all your support – the voice for the voiceless, an animal champion to be reckoned with, the organisation at the forefront of a movement for change.

We have always looked beyond the bars – and we always will!”

The Beyond the Bars book will be available on our webshop soon.

One Response to “Born Free Beyond the Bars Speech”

  1. Donna Mackenzie Says:

    Wish I could have been there. You need to have events up here in the wilds of central Scotland!

    I recently saw some innocent prisoners in a zoo. The bars may have gone, replaced with glass or netting, some enrichment may have been provided but otherwise not much has changed. Tiny enclosures and miserable looking animals. All so that humans can give them a passing glance, take their selfie and move on. On the positive side visitor numbers are plummeting which shows we are getting there. Sure even an hour of freedom would be better than a lifetime in miserable captivity.

    Look forward to reading the book. Keep up the amazing work Will and all at Born Free.

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