Born Free founder Virginia McKenna receives Damehood


One of wildlife’s greatest champions, Virginia McKenna OBE, has today been awarded her Damehood at Windsor Castle. The honour, conferred by The Prince of Wales, is in recognition of her work for Wild Animal Welfare and Compassionate Conservation.

Virginia McKenna during the filming of Born Free, with the lioness 'Girl'

Award-winning actress, writer, singer, poet, humanitarian, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and one of wildlife’s greatest champions, Virginia McKenna OBE, has received her Damehood from His Royal Highness, William, The Prince of Wales, at Windsor Castle. The title has been awarded in recognition of her work for Wild Animal Welfare and Compassionate Conservation over many decades and was announced in the 2022 New Year Honours List.

“This award may be in my name, but I believe it recognises the efforts of the Born Free team over nearly forty years. And the values of the thousands of people who feel, as I do, that we must end the cruelty and suffering that we routinely inflict on wild animals, whether in captivity or in the wild,” Virginia stated. “It is my hope that this honour will draw more attention to the issues Born Free campaigns about, that we will all think a little more before we lock animals up, force them to perform for our entertainment, shoot them for fun, trade in their body parts, or pollute and destroy their fragile habitats. Nature is precious, wild animals are unique. This planet is their home as well as ours, and it is the only one we’ve got.”

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 stepdaughter, 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 threats to biodiversity and the possibility of mass species extinction caused by human activities, including climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and indifference.

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. The following 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 2016, 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

Throughout 2023, Virginia is supporting the voices of young people and their efforts to secure a future for biodiversity, as well as maintaining her relentless focus on individual animal welfare, and helping 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.