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More than a dot-to-dot painting…

As someone who looks to many places for ideas and inspiration, there’s a video I return to time and time again. The words of the late Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple and Creator of Pixar animations, have always rung true to me:

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“It’s impossible to connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back” – SJ.

I’ve been connecting the dots a lot lately.

Somewhere in 2009, a few months after returning from my Born Free Shamwari adventure, I found my mind and heart brimming with inspiration and motivation – creativity that I struggled to find a use for.

I booked an exhibition slot at my local art gallery, to sell artwork to raise money for the Born Free Foundation. In the midst of creating a ‘Natural World’ portfolio of work, I discovered a wildlife art magazine called Wildscape. I wrote to the editor, asking how I could get hold of a copy, and soon held a yearly subscription.

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It was among the beautiful glossy pages of Wildscape that I first registered the work of Pollyanna Pickering: stunning images of tigers, a case study on jaguars and a ’25 years of Born Free Foundation’ double page spread that connected the first of the dots.

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Later that year, I noticed in my annual Born Free members catalogue a range of Christmas Cards with Pollyanna Pickering’s art work printed on them. I’ve since learned that the Pollyanna Pickering Foundation donated £8,000 towards building the Shamwari-based Julie Ward education centre that played a poignant part in my visit.

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“You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – SJ

This month I found myself strolling through the enchanting gardens of Pollyanna’s Derbyshire home. An on-foot safari of wildlife sculptures and beautiful landscaping that left me feeling like a character from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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I was there for the Born Free Foundation Celebration Day and the opportunity to view her ‘Way of the Wolf’ exhibition held within her gallery home. Pollyanna and her daughter Anna Louise were warm and welcoming, and whilst I don’t wish to give too much away, the exhibition rooms were a treasure trove of talent.

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As her pen danced over my 30th anniversary Calendar, I had to catch myself from a nostalgic day dream of tearing open the brown envelopes that Wildscape arrived in – envelops that promised page after page of breath taking artwork in a magazine I used to long to write for.

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“You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever – because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off of the well-worth path, as that will make all the difference.” – SJ

I assume intentionally, Mr Jobs’ speech encompassed the words of my favourite poem and life mantra: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken reads:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

I know that I have opted for the road less travelled many times in my life and as way leads on to way, I find myself somehow staying on the path that I’ve always wanted to take. Never more so than sitting outside the Way of the Wolf exhibition hall, on a low garden wall, next to Born Free CEO and Co-Founder Will Travers, and quizzing him on the changes he’s witnessed over Born Free Foundation’s 30 years.

“When we started, I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me at this point now there would be no more elephants at London Zoo, no more elephants used in UK circuses, no more live animals used at Disneyland – I just wouldn’t have believed it,” he tells me.

As we chewed over everything from the Irwin legacy to Sea World (- look out for a blog post on this soon), I listened as Mr Travers told me that so-called ‘Millennials’ (those, like me, that reached young adulthood around the turn of the millennium) were the driving force behind protests against water circuses, such as Sea World. Ten per cent more 18-25 year olds have petitioned against Sea World’s practices than their ‘baby-boomer’ counterparts, I’m informed.

“The trouble is always that we have to work and plan to time frames – and those aren’t necessarily short term,” Will tells me.

“We have to think in 4 year strategies, as that’s how often the government changes. We have to think of young audiences in terms of the years that they’re at university – or school years. In reality it takes 30 years to really start to make a difference.”

Before we’re interrupted and Will gets whisked away – as his mother Virginia McKenna has sold and signed all the gallery’s copies of her autobiography already and the orders are still rolling in – he leaves me with the thought that the next 30 years of Born Free will be filled with hard work, strategy but ultimately triumph if, the two former are gotten right.

“Yes, we have to make the dots connect, but first we have to be able to look ahead and locate where those dots are before we can even start to join them together.” 

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“Tonight they roar ‘don’t forget us’!”

A welcome with open arms…

Those millions of YouTube viewers who have watched Christian the lion’s reunion with John Rendall and Anthony (Ace) Bourke will recognise the hesitant stroll that holds Christian back for a second, as if drinking in the presence of his old friends, before the magnetised yearning to rekindle with a familiar past becomes too much to suppress, and snaps him from his slow motion progress towards the pair into a full-on run – climaxing in an open-pawed embrace, re-welcoming them into his life.

 

Whilst I have never previously attended Pride in the Park during its 13 year existence, there was a definite sense of returning to familiarity when I found myself set amongst the Born Free logos and 30th Anniversary brandings.

I hesitated myself slightly, to take a deep breath before entering the room where Zulu dancers added vibrant life to the ornate collection of African carvings, prints and memorabilia that decorated each table.

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The most prominent atmosphere created at this event however, was one of warmth and appreciation. I felt as wanted and welcomed as John Rendall must have felt when Christian came charging towards him in that beautiful video.

A particularly strange analogy when I came face-to-face with Mr. Rendall himself during the course of the evening.

IMG_4600In awe of the company I dined with, and the generosity of the room; the elegance of the attire and hard work that brings together such occasions, I tucked into my meal with all the thoughts and sensations that one feels when welcomed into exciting new surrounds.

The particular unique setting of overlooking the Derby Pride Park Stadium was not lost on me as I chatted to new faces around the table and sat back to enjoy the excitement of the auction, which helped to raise £21,000 on this fantastic evening.

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A leopard never changes its spots…

I mentioned in my previous blog post that I’d donated an original art work to the raffle at the Pride in the Park event – and was delighted to watch this prize awarded to the winning raffle ticket holder.

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While the venue, location and event organisers (Val and Mike) may have been new to me, there are certain things that echo from Born Free event to Born Free event – and one such thing is the kindness of Born Free Founder and CEO Will Travers, who invited my guest and I to join his table during the raffle and ensured we had the opportunity to speak with his mother, Virginia McKenna OBE before the night was over. Her kind words and friendly eyes reassured me that a little belief and a lot of passion can spread a long way.IMG_4624

The enthusiasm, meeting of minds and sheer enjoyment of the guests in attendance is a constant that I’ve seen across the Born Free events that I’ve attended. Organisers Val and Mike did a great job of enthusing the passion and empathy that I’ve come to associate with animal welfare campaigners into an eclectic evening of dinner, dance and donations.

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For the love of lions…

Born Free began with a lion.

The infamous story of George and Joy Adamson’s relationship with Elsa the lioness has been epitomised by the Born Free Foundation logo, which stared out from the thoughtfully constructed decor of the Pride in the Park hall.

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Although the room was littered with images of lions, including the beautiful hand-carved statues that stood proudly on every table – there are two lions in particular whose plight Pride in the Park was highlighting.

Had I followed through with my previous application for a marketing internship at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, I might have gotten to meet the two lions in question (I made it to the last 4 in the process before having to pull out for financial reasons).

Simba and Bella; victims of the zoo industry, have joined the sanctuary in a move which ends years of loneliness, solitude and unnatural behaviours for the pair. If all goes well, they will be introduced without the restrictions of a fence.

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In a story that demonstrates perfectly the close knit community and everyday heroism of Born Free Foundation supporters and campaigners – television auctioneer James Lewis delighted, amused and moved the crowd with his story of the significant part he played in moving Bella from her torturous life in Romania while his daughter was being born. Naturally, when Arabella grows up to tell the story of where her name came from, I hope she will be greeted with the affectionate reaction that filled the room as James spoke.

“Tonight they roar: ‘don’t forget us’…”

Of course this wonderful evening had a purpose and a very important message.

Amongst the chatter, the laughter, the dancing and the camaraderie, there had to come a sobering voice to remind us of the reality of what has brought this room full of people together.

A poignant speech from Born Free President Will Travers tragically had to include the words: “We have lost over half Africa’s lions in last 30 years.”

I’ll leave you to think that over for a second.

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When an experience truly moves you, when it speaks to your soul and fully penetrates your thoughts, ideas and challenges your memories and beliefs, it never leaves you.

Many times I’ve found my head nostalgically returning to those busy days spent soaking up life at Shamwari Game Reserve – none more so than seeing Shamwari’s Born Free Animal Care Manager Glen Vena for the first time in 6 years.

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I understand entirely Glen’s passion as he spoke fondly of the animals he encounters everyday at the reserve.
When he tearfully recalled the heart ache of losing a lioness. When he described how all the Born Free big cats filled the dusk air with a chorus of roars as he buried a beast who had suffered so much in earlier years but was liberated to a life of comfort in land they truly belonged.
When he described the feeling of driving to work in a Born Free Land Rover and identifying each vocalisation according to which big cat is making it.
When he told the room: “tonight they roar: don’t forget us…”

We won’t.

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Preparations, Paintings & Pride in the Park

Something very exciting is happening this weekend. Two very exciting things actually…

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If you can’t see from this hurriedly taken photo of my Pride in the Park tickets, I’m headed to Derby for a fantastic and glamorous evening of entertainment and auction as part of Born Free Foundation’s 30th anniversary celebrations.

I even dusted off my coloured pencils and did my first piece of art work in two years for the occasion! As a prize donation to the raffle, I created this image of a leopard, based on a photo I took of Born Free’s Kuma when I was out in Shamwari – obviously I have a bit of artistic license, and I draw free hand rather than tracing or ‘squaring-up’, I’m not claiming this leaopard drawing actually looks like Kuma – or is supposed to be him, it was just a great resource for the drawing.

The second exciting part of my weekend – on the theme of art – will be a trip to the opening of Pollyanna Pickering’s exhibition as part of the Born Free Foundation Celebration Day on Sunday.

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I’ve been a fan of Pollyanna’s work since the days I used to subscribe to a beautiful magazine called Wildscape, specifically exploring and celebrating wildlife art.

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It’s going to be an awesome 24 hours – can’t wait to tell you all about it on the other side!

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A Wild Night at the Movies

We’re running late. The Piccadilly traffic stands still, a glistening of red rubies not unlike something I’d seen in a jewellery store window. Bathed in the cool white glow of the infamous Piccadilly Circus screens, this would normally be one of my favourite city scenes. But not tonight, not when we’re running late.

“It’s 30 years since Born Free Foundation began.
25 years since the wise, gentle George Adamson was murdered.
20 years since our inspiration in all that Born Free does, my beloved father Bill Travers passed away…”

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Tugging at the doors of BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, they moved just a couple of millimetres before falling back on the themselves forcefully. It’s locked?
“How do we get in?”
“No idea. It is here, isn’t it?”
I find two buttons, one for disabled, automatic door access, one for calling reception. I press both, instantaneously. One has to work.

“But 30 years for wildlife, and here we are, all together. The Born Free generation”. We applaud loudly and I’m grinning like a baffoon as Will Travers OBE descends the stage and returns to his seat beside his mother; Virginia McKenna OBE. I’ve seen him in countless newsletters and leaflets but he’s taller than I’d imagined. More studious looking. “The Born Free generation” I repeat in my mind. I agree. I’m 23 and this film and it’s namesake charity have always been a part of my growing up. In my life like a family member. Adoption packs, letters, bags for old ink cartridges, a pile of used stamps I’ve been meaning to send. A bookcase with a shelf filled with various editions of stories from and about the Adamsons; the films – DVDs next to VHS’ that I refuse to part with. A stuffed toy of Aslan sits next to a framed photograph in which I’m laughing with my Shamwari volunteer workmates as we sat across the wooden benches of the Julie Ward Education centre. A black and white poster of Joy sitting over Elsa as she’s rolling on her back, more like a dog than a lioness. Five seconds in my room and it’s undeniable. I’m one of the Born Free generation.

The door swings open slowly but at just the right speed to drink each feature in at a rate I can process. A screen above an elevator has the comfortingly familiar Born Free Foundation logo (phew. We are in the right place). A golden face, the symbol of BAFTA stares out from the first half of a staircase, and there at the foot of the stairs a small white plague, humbly announcing the 30th Anniversary ‘Wild Night at the Movies’. I check the time of my phone – 7.31. We’re not doing too badly.

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I hear the soft crunching of popcorn as a commotion breaks out on screen. The editing is a little more jumpy than I remember, and the speed of the frames as a man-eating lion runs into the gun fire of Bill Travers’ portrayal of George is faster than I expected. But it’s perfect. Charming, dramatic, nostalgic.

At the top of the staircase, passed the reception, we walk into the David Lean room. Large banners and merchandise stalls greet us. I can breathe again now. I smile as we’re handed a glass of Wild Thing wine and drink in the room as well as the sweetness of the wine. There are familiar faces all around – one of Born Free Foundation’s most passionate campaigners; Helen Worth (Coronation Street’s Gail Platt), soap nasty John Altman (Eastenders’ Nick Cotton) to name drop just a couple. “If you’d like to make your way into the auditorium…” a voice calls out. Will Travers steps aside with a smile and a “after you”, before I’ve even realised who I’ve slid past. At least I was gracious enough to allow whoever was about to step out of the elevator to enter the auditorium before me. It turned out to be Leslie Phillips CBE and his beautiful wife. Is this night for real?

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George Adamson: I don’t know what goes on in that head of yours anymore… What’s wrong with a zoo, anyway?

Joy Adamson: Nothing. Except that she won’t be free.

George Adamson: and Is freedom so important?

Joy Adamson: Yes, yes, she was born free and she has the right to live free. Why don’t we live in a more comfortable setting George? Other people do. We chose to live out here cause it represents freedom for us. Because we can breathe.

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With all the grace and elegance I’ve come to associate with her on-screen presence, Virginia spent the next hour talking us through her life and career before and beyond the Born Free film (with a little help from Mr Phillips): expertly guided through the questions of a blossoming Kate Silverton (who vows that when she goes into labour she will have the film’s theme song on her ‘birthing playlist’, just like she did with her first child!). I was staggered to learn that this is only the second time that Virginia has watched the film, and that the song nearly didn’t make it into the final cut as the producers ‘weren’t convinced’ at first.

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As the iconic first line of John Barry’s “Born free, as free as the wind blows…” fills the auditorium I try to swallow the lump in my throat. It’s been building up since Bill Travers delivered the line: “You must be very proud”. Given the circumstances, it’s so poignant. I think everyone in the room feels both proud and inspired by Virginia Mckenna and I think to myself how proud Bill would have been of all that Virginia and Will have achieved through Born Free in the two decades since his passing. “I’m proud of her” the character of Joy Adamson responds.

All too soon – to the roaring sound of a passionate and heart-felt standing ovation for Virginia – my dream evening was coming to a close. But I had a lot of long-lasting thoughts to take home with me. What next? What will happen over the next 30 years? Will the animals still be free?

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“I believe in the ‘drip, drip, drip effect’,” was Virginia’s parting thought that concluded the interview: the response that led to the entire audience rising to their feet to applaud – “that if we keep doing the little things that we can, they’ll lead to a big impact. We must never lose hope. We will win.”

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