Interview with Virginia McKenna, founder of The Born Free Foundation

PUBLISHED: 12:45 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:35 20 February 2013

Interview with Virginia McKenna, founder of The Born Free Foundation

Interview with Virginia McKenna, founder of The Born Free Foundation

Virginia McKenna is a film star with many hits to her name, including Born Free and A Town Like Alice. Virginia and her late husband's love of wildlife inspired them to set up The Born Free Foundation, which is now based in Horsham...

Virginia McKenna is a film star with many hits to her name, including Carve Her Name with Pride, Born Free and A Town Like Alice.
Wildlife has played a big part in her life and in some of the movies she made with her late husband Bill Travers. Their love of wildlife led them to set up the Born Free Foundation25 years ago. It is now led by their son Will and is based in Horsham...

What led you to base the Born Free Foundation in Sussex?
We started in Battersea in 1984, then we moved to the cottage in my garden until we had people in every cupboard.
Then, about eight years ago, we moved to Horsham to Foundry Lane and then we rented the adjoining offices too. It was really very convenient because its near the station and handy for volunteersand for people coming from London.Its not far from town and the banks and shops.

Do you have any other Sussex connections?
When I was seven I went to Herons Ghyll School, which is no longer there. It was a lovely small prep school, near Horsham. I left to go to South Africa during the war but I came back when the war was over and I stayed until I was 17. I loved it.

What are you most proud of in connection with the Foundations work?
I dont use the word pride, I appreciate the fact that our work has become a subject of conversation now. People would go and laugh at animals behaving in abnormal ways. Now when people see a bear pacing up and down they realise things are wrong.
There are changes in some of the zoos although I have seen some horrendous ones. In Europe there is beginning to be a movement for change but there are some which are still pretty shocking.
What about safari parks?
Animals in safari parks have more space but its still not the same as living in the wild. At one safari park a guy drove up to some lions in his Land-Rover until they got up to make them walk about. Theres still this mentality of people challenging the animals.

But what if we want to see animals?
We see more than we ever could, even as visitors to Africa or in a zoo on really enthralling wildlife programmes on TV. We can really learn so much about animals and their environment from them.

Your son Will is chief executive of the Foundation. When did he get his passion for animals?
When he was five or six, he came with us when we were filming Born Free in Kenya. As a teenager he went across the Sudan and the Sahara.
He goes to Africa regularly and he gets on really well with the people.

Was he tempted to follow you and his father into acting?
He had a little shot at the thespian side but decided to work for animals. Its all communication anyway.
He spends a lot of his time getting the Foundations message across.

The Foundation is not just about wild animals is it?
No. We help people too through our Global Friends programme. We realised that, working in Africa, its no good just talking about wildlife, we ought to go and look at the communities there and what their problems are and how the wildlife is affecting their lives. You have to do joined-up thinking.

If there is one thing you could make happen, what would it be?
I would love people to join us. I would love the chance to explain and show how we can enrich our own lives by understanding the lives of wild creatures and the environment.

To find out more about the Born Free Foundation, visit its website:

To find out more about Virginia McKennas work, read her book The Life in My Years, available from the Born Free website or all good booksellers.

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