Born Free is most famous now as a film, but of course it was based on a stunning true life story. George Adamson was working as a game warden in Kenya, when, while hunting a man-eating lion, he killed a lioness, who attacked his party. George quickly realised that the lioness' actions were due to the fact that she'd recently had cubs, and he quickly found the three orphaned lionesses, and brought them home to his wife, Joy.
As the cubs grew older the two strongest were given to a zoo in Rotterdam, but the runt of the litter, Elsa, became a pet, and lived with the Adamsons even when she was fully grown. It soon became clear though that Elsa couldn't stay a pet forever, and faced with a choice of rehoming her in a zoo, or letting her become a wild lion again, the Adamsons decided that no zoo was going to be good enough for their beloved Elsa, and so, with the help of some training to get her back into the mind-frame of a wild lion, who needed to be able to catch and keep its food, Elsa was returned to the wild. The return was a success, as shortly after the book was first published Elsa produced cubs, who although they lived wild, were also introduced by Elsa to her human "parents", George and Joy.
It is a remarkable story, although Elsa's transition from tame tabby to wild cat does not read as dramatically in the book as it does in the film. Although Elsa undoubtedly enjoyed being around her human family, it's fairly clear in the book that she retained many of her natural instincts, so perhaps the move back to the wild is not quite as dramatic as it appears to be in the film. Nevertheless it is an amazing story.
Perhaps even more amazing are the changes that this book has inspired. At the time it was written big game hunting was still fairly common, although there were many people like George Adamson, who were keen on conservation, and were aware of the dangers to African wildlife. Also, at the time it was written zoos with small cages and traumatised animals were also far too common, and elephants and big cats were routinely used in circuses. The work of the Born Free Foundation, founded by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna following their experiences in making the film of the book, would make a big difference to the way in which wild animals were routinely treated; while conservation is now of huge importance in Africa. Tourists now generally shoot animals with their digital cameras, and not with guns.
It is quite a story, and is ultimately one of those books that had an enormous impact on people's thinking.
There's a fascinating BBC documentary about Elsa's story here.