FOUNDER OF BORN FREE VIRGINIA MCKENNA AWARDED DAMEHOOD IN NEW YEAR HONOURS LIST
Family and friends, admirers around the world, and colleagues at the Born Free Foundation (UK), Born Free USA, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, are delighted that the award-winning actress, writer, singer, poet, humanitarian, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and one of wildlife’s greatest champions, Virginia McKenna OBE, has been made a Dame in recognition of her work for Wild Animal Welfare and Compassionate Conservation in the New Year Honours 2023.
Award-winning actress, writer, singer, poet, humanitarian, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and one of wildlife’s greatest champions, Virginia McKenna OBE, has been made a Dame in recognition of her work for Wild Animal Welfare and Compassionate Conservation in the New Year Honours List 2023.
A much-loved actress, Virginia’s early work includes A Town Like Alice (for which she won a BAFTA), The Cruel Sea, Carve Her Name with Pride (for which she was nominated for a BAFTA), and The Smallest Show on Earth, with her husband, Bill Travers.
Virginia and Bill made a number of other films together, including Ring of Bright Water and An Elephant Called Slowly – but most famously played Joy and George Adamson in the film adaptation of the book of the same name, Born Free (for which she won a Golden Globe).
Her celebrated stage roles include playing Gertrude to Roger Rees’ Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Desiree in A Little Night Music (taking over from Jean Simmons), and, for over 500 performances at the London Palladium, as Anna opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I (for which she received an Olivier Award).
Her books range from Some Of My Friends Have Tails and Into The Blue (a history of dolphins and their relationship with people) to her well-received autobiography, The Life in My Years, and Tonight The Moon is Red (an anthology of her poetry).
Virginia has four children, a step-daughter, eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
In 1984, along with her late husband Bill (who died in 1994) and her eldest son Will, she co-founded Zoo Check, an organisation critical of the exploitation of wild animals in zoos and circuses, which went on to become the Born Free Foundation (Born Free).
Her concern for the plight of wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, remains a priority for her, accentuated by the looming threat to biodiversity and the possibility of mass species extinction caused by human activities, including climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and indifference.
“This award may be in my name, but I feel it really belongs to all those striving to end wild animal suffering and keep wildlife in the wild,” Virginia stated. “Bill and I shared a belief in the power of one. One animal that needs rescuing; one species that needs protecting; one human community that needs supporting; one ecosystem that needs conserving. And the power that resides in each of us every day to do something about it.”
Over the nearly 39 years since she began her Born Free work, Virginia has contributed to numerous measures to end wild animal exploitation and enhance compassionate conservation, which were included in the citation for her Damehood:
• Supporting successful Government legislation ending the use of wild animals in circuses in England and Wales
• The introduction of Government legislation ending the import, export and domestic trade in items containing ivory, with strictly limited exemptions
• Influencing and contributing to the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 2006, by providing evidence concerning wild animal suffering in zoos and circuses, farm parks and in the wild. This activity built on previous successes which culminated in the passing of the EU Zoos’ Directive, which required all EU zoos to be licensed and to meet clear criteria
• Writing, providing commentary and supporting efforts to present evidence on Cetaceans (orca, dolphins and porpoises) and how they suffer physically and mentally from life in captivity. She pointed out that the physical, sensory and social environment in which these animals have evolved to live contrasts dramatically with the restricted and barren tanks found in dolphinaria, where cetaceans are held for viewing or performance to entertain visitors, with no prospect of release
In the year ahead, Virginia hopes to focus on supporting the voices of young people and their efforts to secure a future for biodiversity, as well as to maintain her relentless focus on individual animal welfare, and to help develop alternatives to trophy hunting.
Virginia has an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Nottingham Trent University and an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from University of Bedfordshire.
Image captions, from top: Virginia McKenna and her late husband Bill Travers with the lions Boy (left) and Girl (right) in 1964, during the filming of Born Free; Virginia and Bill with the late Leslie Phillips, during the filming of The Smallest Show on Earth; Virginia in 2022 at the launch of the Born Free Forever exhibition of bronze lion statues by artists Gillie and Marc; Virginia at a march campaigning to ban trophy hunting.