Editor’s Notes: The Jerusalem heritage of the ‘lion cub from Harrods’

By David Horovitz May 28, 2009

The remarkable saga of Christian, the affectionate young lion who didn’t forget his first owners even after he’d returned to the wild, has become a YouTube phenomenon. But the heartwarming tale has its origins in Jerusalem, where Christian’s likely ancestor showed a similarly warm disposition and excellent memory in the pre-state pioneering days of Aharon Shulov’s Biblical Zoo

It’s a story that has touched tens of millions of people around the world – the saga of two Australian bachelors who purchased a lion cub from Harrods on a whim, raised him resourcefully, lovingly and most improbably in swinging west London, arranged a near-miraculous new life for him in the wild, and most astoundingly of all were twice emotionally reunited with him in Africa.

It’s a story that played out between 1969 and 1972 – and was filmed and written about back then – but that has found new resonance in the Internet age, via a short clip posted last year on YouTube, in turn prompting a new book, documentary and worldwide media interest. The footage shows the first astonishing reunion in Kenya between the two Australians and the by now two-year-old Christian, who, initially hesitant, recognizes and then bounds towards them, all but knocking them over in his enthusiasm, the King of the Jungle hugging and nuzzling like a pussy cat.

It’s a story that resonates because its essence is so positive: John Rendall and Ace Bourke clearly adored Christian and manifestly sought to do right by him. They purchased him because they were horrified to see him caged up at Harrods, they enjoyed every moment of the limited time they had with him, they worked assiduously to find a route for him back to nature, and they were rewarded with a love that transcended the normal, natural boundaries between flimsy humans and 300-pound carnivores.

It’s also a story that might be expected to have a certain limited relevance for Israel – given that the lion was the emblem of the tribe and kingdom of Yehuda (Judah), and became the emblem of the city of Jerusalem. In fact, though, the newly revived tale of Christian, the lion cub from Harrods, holds considerably more than a passing interest for Israel. Indeed, it has some of its origins here. Moreover, the compassion for animals and concern for their conservation that motivated Christian’s brief owners Rendall and Bourke 40 years ago were the very same qualities that, in the early 1940s, had energized the sequence of events that led to Christian’s birth.

AS THEY have recounted innumerable times in writing and on film, Rendall and Bourke encountered Christian in the run-up to Christmas 1969. He was caged, along with his sister, in the ‘zoo’ maintained by the ritzy Harrods department store in Knightsbridge – a supremely inappropriate pet in those far-off years before Britain passed legislation protecting endangered species and when Harrods could and would get the customer anything and everything his heart might desire.

The girl cub seemed understandably angry at her incarceration, and too daunting a prospect, but Christian struck them as sweet-tempered, so the young Australians shelled out the considerable sum of 250 guineas and took him home – to their apartment above the furniture store where they worked on Chelsea’s hip King’s Road. A tiger, gorilla and puma were all reputed to live nearby, in similarly inappropriate domestic discomfort.
The store was, groovily and fortuitously, called Sophisticat. The owners could not resist the coincidence, so young sophistiCat Christian roamed free amid the pine chairs and tables – to the delight of most of the customers (though not George Lazenby, the actor who had just starred in Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Christian, the story goes, scared The Living Daylights out of Bond).

Rendall and Bourke fully recognized that a cub that had weighed 35 pounds but was on the way to 180 pounds by his first birthday couldn’t maintain a Chelsea lifestyle for long. So even as they exercised him in an enclosed church garden at the end of the street and spent ever more money on his diet, they were desperately trying to find a long-term alternative. Their new book A Lion Called Christian and documentary explain how they achieved this – with the help of ‘Born Free’ movie stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, and then via the conservationist on whom that 1966 film was based, George Adamson. The book and film also detail their subsequent visits to Adamson’s camp at the Kora Reserve in Kenya, with the ensuing reunion footage from 1971 and 1972 now massively popular online. But there’s only a passing mention of Christian’s heritage.

The cub, which Harrods’ staff had named Marcus, was born on August 12, 1969, they note, in England’s now defunct Ilfracome Zoo. His dad, Butch, had come from Holland. And his mother, Mary, they say without elaboration, had come from the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem…

AT OUR magnificent Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, located these past 16 years in Malha and home to six-year- old Leider and his three feuding lionesses Elenya, Lavinya and Indie, many of the keepers had seen the heartwarming reunion footage online, but nobody had picked up on Christian’s Jerusalem ancestry until I raised it with them this week.

English-born veteran lionkeeper Dennis rolled up his sleeves to show me the various cuts and scratches that come with his job, and to tell me that one wrong move with Leider, one door inadvertently left open, and ‘he’d rip me apart.’

‘That’s what they do,’ confirmed his colleague Eric cheerfully. ‘They don’t call them wild animals for nothing.’
Dennis and Eric have both worked at the zoo since the days when, pre-Malha, it was located in Romema, not far from the offices of this newspaper, but they had no specific information on lions sent in years past to England or anywhere else.

But the zoo referred me to Michael Shulov, whose late father, Aharon, founded and devoted much of his life to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. And Michael, a committed animal conservationist himself, declared immediately and confidently that Christian must have been the descendant of his father’s zoo’s very first lion, inevitably named Yehuda.

Yehuda was an African lion and Christian was Asiatic, but experts note that, depending on the sub-species of the female lionesses involved, the shift is perfectly possible. And Yehuda proved notably virile in his years here and was the mainstay of a breeding process that saw Jerusalem export numerous cubs to zoos around the world.

Michael went back to his father’s writings, including his 1981 Hebrew book, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lion: 40 years of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and there Aharon Shulov documents the remarkable circumstances by which Yehuda – whose original name was Fifi – came to Jerusalem, throwing up delightful precursors to the saga of Christian. Aharon Shulov also describes Yehuda’s unusually gentle temperament and wonderful memory, again inviting parallels with his presumed descendant. And the book specifies that dozens of Yehuda’s descendants were sent overseas, to Turkey, Burma, Thailand and India. Eight went to England, Christian’s mother Mary presumably among them.

Yehuda came to pre-state Israel from Eritrea, thanks to a friend of Shulov’s named Dov Gazit, a Hagana member and later an Israel Air Force officer, who was constructing an air base there for the British. Gazit had promised Shulov he’d find and send him a first lion for the fledgling zoo. The lion is mentioned 150 times in the Bible and had roamed the hills around Jerusalem until the 12th century, and so a lion was a prized potential asset for the Jerusalem collection.

In December 1942, Gazit cabled Shulov to say he had found the promised creature: he had run into a British officer walking two lion cubs in the streets of Asmara, the capital. The officer had adopted them after their mother was killed in a hunting expedition, he was being transferred elsewhere and couldn’t take them with him, and he was prepared to sell them for £25.

As Shulov recounts in his book, however, one of the cubs died and the officer decided not to sell but rather to raffle off the other, Fifi, with the proceeds going to the International Red Cross. Gazit and his colleagues excitedly bought 60 one-shilling tickets for the lion lottery… And they lost.

The winner was a Scottish nurse from the local military hospital, however. And since she really had nowhere to keep a baby lion, and had entered the raffle only because she supported the cause, she readily sold Fifi to Gazit.

Shulov has great fun describing the difficulties Gazit faced looking after a fast-growing lion in World War II Eritrea – many of the same kinds of problems that Bourne and Rendall would encounter in Chelsea almost 30 years later – as the weeks passed and Gazit sought in vain for a ship to transport Fifi to Palestine. Finally, after more than three months, an appropriate vessel docked at Djibouti en route to Egypt. But the captain – who can blame him? – refused to take the crated lion on board.

‘So then Dov Gazit attempted one final act of persuasion,’ writes Shulov. ‘Without a word, he took the cub out of the crate, to prove that it posed no danger. The cub went straight over to the captain and began to nuzzle his feet and lick his hands. The captain, flabbergasted, could not resist and agreed to have the cub on board, on condition that he would be allowed to remove the cub from its crate now and again and play with it in his cabin.’

So here was Christian’s presumed ancestor exemplifying the family predilection for warm interaction with humans. Shulov was also able to strike up a cuddly relationship once the cub had finally made it to the Jerusalem zoo, located in those days on Shmuel Hanavi Street.

Later in the book, the Israeli zoo pioneer describes Yehuda’s similarly ancestral capacity to remember benefactors. Just as Christian bounded in from the wild to twice renew his friendship with Rendall and Bourke a year and then two years after their parting in the early 1970s, so did Yehuda warmly recall his previous owner Gazit in the 1940s. More than three years after Yehuda’s arrival in Jerusalem, Gazit visited the lion at the zoo for the first time, and ‘the lion nuzzled Gazit’s feet, licked his hand and tried to rest his head on Gazit’s chest,’ writes Shulov. ‘After Gazit left the cage,’ Yehuda ‘stood for a long time watching him go, casting longing glances at Gazit’s receding image. After six years, the friends met up again, but this time the response was much more restrained.’

BOURKE AND Randall don’t know for sure what became of Christian, but Adamson witnessed him mating with the two lionesses whose company he enjoyed at the Kenyan reserve, and they say they’d like to believe his descendants live proudly on.

He certainly has no relatives in Jerusalem anymore; Leider came from Poland and the lionesses are from the UK and Germany.

But Christian’s two former owners, enjoying this unexpected, YouTube-fueled second time in the spotlight, have tried to use their new 15 minutes of fame to stress the imperative for conservation that impelled them to fly Christian to Kenya almost 40 years ago.

And that concern for wildlife welfare would emphatically have echoed with Jerusalem’s zoo-pioneering Aharon Shulov who, it seems, brought Christian’s ancestor from Eritrea to Israel. The Ukrainian-born Shulov was interested in animals from childhood, lectured in zoology at the Hebrew University, conceived the need for a zoo to show his students what they were studying, and wanted everybody in this area to be able to appreciate the animal kingdom – and especially the various species that had lived here in biblical times.

The current thriving zoo in Malha culminates decades of struggle to preserve and safeguard the zoo and its denizens – especially, says Michael Shulov, during the period from 1947-50 when it was located on Mount Scopus, and his father risked his life during the siege of Jerusalem to try to keep as many animals as possible alive. At the lowest point, he was left with just two wolves, a hyena, a leopard… and Yehuda.

Now the zoo is deeply involved in saving endangered species from extinction and reintroducing animals – notably the Persian Fallow Deer and the Sand Cat – back to nature. And a charitable fund in Shulov’s memory offers grants to students who focus on issues such as conservation of endangered species.

Back in Africa, a charity named after the man who facilitated Christian’s return to nature, the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust (Adamson was murdered by bandits 20 years ago), enabled the establishment of a national park, the Mkomazi Preserve in Tanzania, which runs breeding programs for endangered species.

A continent apart then, Yehuda and Christian have a shared legacy, confronting a shared challenge. As Bourke and Randall, who are currently in China on a publicity tour, take pains to note in their interviews, the world’s lion population is a third today of what it was when they shipped Christian to Kenya in 1970.

‘If the lion, the ultimate predator, is healthy, then it means everything else is in place – there are enough herbivores, there’s enough grass for them, it means the water is pure and unpolluted – but it also means there is enough for the human beings who live around these parts,’ Rendall, a trustee of the Adamson Trust, explained to Perth’s West Australian newspaper last month. ‘If you lose the lion you are going to have too many indigenous herbivores, they are going to overgraze, therefore there’s going to be not enough for the domestic cattle… You start getting soil erosion, the imploding of wells and rivers being polluted and so it all goes wrong.’

Oh, and there’s one other thing the two Australians stress: They don’t encourage people to take lion cubs for pets.

© The Jerusalem Post