Lioness walks in grass in golden light

Dame Virginia McKenna's Circle of Compassion

Everything we do is about one. One animal, one animal suffering, one animal we can help, one species, one person, one community, one leader – and that becomes one more.

Dame Virginia McKenna
Circle of Compassion logoVirginia’s Circle of Compassion brings together an inspiring network of like-minded people, with a passion for wild animals, from all over the world. Pooling knowledge, distinctive ideas and expertise, the remarkable group of women are on a mission to help transform global conservation and wild animal welfare.

Guided by Virginia, members share insights and collaborate on unique enterprises to support wildlife, voting to allocate funds to specific projects. Motivated by compassion, the prestigious Circle sponsors key initiatives and makes a huge difference so wild animals can thrive.

Regular updates and online meetings provide Circle members exclusive updates and behind the scenes insights from Born Free. Our work never stops and funding from the Circle of Compassion supports projects highlighted from our programmatic teams.

In October 2023, our Circle of Compassion enjoyed an online teams meeting, with almost every member attending, including our US and Belgium members. “It was a lovely evening,” said Born Free’s Events & Philanthropy Manager Joanne Bartholomew. “And how wonderful that our Co-Founders Virginia and her son Will Travers could join us – everyone was thrilled to see them!”

Members enjoyed updates on the vital projects they had voted to fund that year, including our powerful new animation Enough is Enough, launched on 17th October 2023, narrated by our Founder Patron Dame Joanna Lumley, and calling for an Elephant-Free UK. The Circle were also delighted to discover more about the solar power they had helped provide for Born Free’s big cat rescue centres at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa. This is an essential part of our application process to receive official accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries – which recognises the highest possible standards.

An important section of the meeting was to consider the allocation of Circle funding for 2024 and Born Free’s programmatic teams did a fantastic job presenting their potential projects, all in need of support. “The presentations were really absorbing,” said Dame Virginia McKenna. “I am so proud of the wonderful and fascinating work being done.”

“It was an impactful meeting,” said Will Travers. “But, it will be a difficult decision for the Circle members to decide which new projects to support.” Voting took place over the following few days and, happily, the Circle members voted to split £22,000 funding between four projects:

  1. Pride of Meru – to monitor and protect wild lions in our homeland of Kenya
  2. Exotic pet trade – to help our policy team seek tighter rules in UK and Europe
  3. Lions for Life – to support a school film, part of free, downloadable resources
  4. UK wildlife – to fund rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals in need.

For further information about joining Virginia’s Circle of Compassion, please email Leah Mitchell who will be delighted to hear from you, or download the PDF below.

Join Virginia’s Circle of Compassion

January 2024: Update on Born Free’s campaign for an Elephant-Free UK 

Born Free’s Head of Policy, Dr Mark Jones, shares how Enough is Enough, the powerful animation funded by the Circle of Compassion, is already making a positive impact.

Dr Mark Jones, Head of Policy

“October 17th 2023 was a poignant day for Born Free. It was on that very day, 40 years previously, that Pole Pole, the Kenyan elephant who starred as a two-year-old calf with our Co-Founders Dame Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers MBE in the film An Elephant Called Slowly in 1969, collapsed while being transferred from London Zoo to Whipsnade, and was euthanised. 

“After filming An Elephant Called Slowly, and in spite of Virginia and Bill’s protestations, the Kenyan government sent Pole Pole to London Zoo as a gift. Her miserable life at the zoo, and her death in 1983 at just 17 years old, inspired the actors to establish Zoo Check the following year with their eldest son Will Travers, the charity which evolved into the Born Free Foundation. 

“To mark the 40th anniversary of Pole Pole’s death, Born Free commissioned the production of a short animated film narrated by our Founder Patron Dame Joanna Lumley. Called Enough is Enough, the film portrays Pole Pole’s life and tragic death, and highlights how little has changed for captive zoo elephants in the UK over the past four decades, in spite of our ever-expanding awareness of the intelligence and social complexity of elephants and how they suffer in captivity. Finally, it emphasises that ‘Enough is Enough’, and invites viewers to sign our petition calling for the phasing out of elephants in UK zoos. 


An animated image of a mother and baby elephant

Born Free’s animated film, Enough is Enough

“The film was made possible thanks to the generosity of Virginia’s Circle of Compassion, who provided the funding to enable us to make the project a reality. A mammoth-sized thank you goes them, and to Andrew Morgan and his team at Morgan Design Services who put the animation together. Its launch on October 17th was featured on the Jeremy Vine show on Channel 5, BBC 1 South, ITV Meridian, national and local radio, and in major national and many local newspapers, as well as overseas, igniting a robust debate on the future of elephants in zoos. By the end of 2023, more than 13,000 people had signed our petition, and the numbers keep growing. 

“Our campaign for an Elephant-Free UK, with its emphasis on securing the welfare and well-being of the remaining elephants for the remainder of their lives, reflects our wider concerns for the welfare of wild animals in zoos and other forms of captivity. Since we were founded as Zoo Check in 1984, we have challenged the global zoo industry and today we lead the movement against the captive exploitation of wild animals. We will never stop in our efforts to end wild animal exploitation and keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs. 

“An elephant never forgets, and we cannot afford to forget them. Enough Is Enough.” 


Head shot of Karen Botha

Karen Botha, Born Free Managing Director

We are delighted to share news from Born Free’s Managing Director, Karen Botha, who visited the Ensessa Kotteh sanctuary in Ethiopia to see first-hand the impact our Circle of Compassion members have had this year.

“I visited Ensesseh Kotteh for the first time in early July, to meet our Born Free team in Ethiopia and to visit our Sanctuary there.

“The Sanctuary is a peaceful oasis of calm, in a beautiful part of the country. The layout of the Sanctuary is thoughtful and well planned, and the enclosures are clearly built to prioritise the care and privacy of the animals. Our team there, made up of animal care givers, security personnel, facilities maintenance, and veterinary care, are all exceptional!

“There is no doubt there are major challenges in the country in terms of security, and of course rampant inflation which affects all aspects of our operations there, but despite these challenges, Born Free colleagues are so incredibly focused and dedicated to the animals and to Born Free, and it was humbling for me to get to know them all better.

“I was delighted to see that the work to install the electric fencing around the primate and lion enclosures was all but complete. The chosen installer had done a fantastic job and Bereket is very happy with the results. The team will receive final training on monitoring and maintenance from the service provider and once they are happy that the Born Free team is comfortable with managing the systems, they will sign the work off. There will now also be a period of learning, both by the animals in care and by the visiting wild animals, as they learn to respect the fence and to keep away from it. I am told that the fence emits a ‘pulse’ which is unpleasant to the touch but is in no way dangerous to animals.

“There is no doubt that without the financial contribution from Virginia’s Circle of Compassion, this vitally important intervention would not have been able to take place as quickly as it has. Its introduction to the Sanctuary means that the animals in our care, sadly there as a result of the illegal wildlife trade, will not be tormented by the wild animals outside the enclosure trying to get to them, and of course, equally importantly, our staff and neighbouring communities are better protected too. Thank you to all in Virginia’s Circle of Compassion for your continued support.”

A tall fence line in a grassy landscape

The new fencing at Ensessa Kotteh