In 2006, one year after YouTube was founded, a video was uploaded that would be among the video-sharing platform’s first ever to go “viral.”
The video was clearly decades-old footage of a full grown male lion excitedly hugging two men in the African bush.
Many of the more than 7 million people who have viewed the video hadn’t ever seen anything like it. Why would a wild animal greet these men in such a way? It turns out, the three have a long history together stretching back to the 1960s.
Today, trafficking exotic animals is illegal, and even in the case where it is legal, the animals are often procured illegally from the wild. But in 1969, the exotic animal trade was flourishing in places like London.
That year, John Rendall and his friend Anthony “Ace” Bourke saw a lion cub for sale in London. They loved the young cub and opted to purchase it and bring him back to their home in Chelsea. They would name this lion cub “Christian,” a sort of tongue-in-cheek Biblical joke.
Caring for a lion cub was a lot like caring for a cat, just significantly larger. They had a giant cat litter box for the cub and fed him steaks. The cat lived in a furniture shop called “SophistoCat” and was overall a well-mannered animal. He’d even play with children and was allowed into fancy restaurants for a steak dinner.
But as Christian grew larger, John and Ace knew that he would eventually outgrow their flat, their furniture shop, and eventually, London as a city.
He was getting harder to control as he got older. As gentle as he was, there was always a fear that one wrong move, even accidentally, would be disastrous. The idea to relocate him came from Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, two actors from the movie “Born Free.” The actor duo visited SophistoCat to see the big cat and suggest that Christian be set free.
Ace and John were encouraged to reach out to a man named George Adamson, who could help rehabilitate Christian and prepare him for living in the wild. George helped make the connection with Kenyan Wildlife Services to relocate Christian from London to the wilds of Kenya.
It was not an easy process nor was it a quick one. It would take months to gather the necessary permissions to move Christian from the UK to Kenya.
In the meantime, Christian was no longer able to thrive safely in London, so Ace and John quite their jobs and relocated 30 miles outside of London to the countryside where the lion would have more space.
While in the countryside, Bill and Virginia built out a habitat that mimicked the wilds of Kenya as much as they could. Christian seemed to enjoy his time here, getting used to a more natural environment. At the same time, George was in Kenya working to prepare a camp that could accept Christian. This camp already had a small pride of lions that George believed Christian could be integrated into.
Eventually, Christian was moved by plane to Kenya. Christian, who had grown up in the lap of luxury, was slow to adapt to life in the wild. The lion actually spent his first night sleeping in a tent on a bed with Ace and John.
Christian was interested in the natural environment of Africa, and John and Ace feared that Christian was in danger.
The lion showed no aggression toward other animals, like crocodiles and hippos. The pride that George wanted to introduce Christian to was unwelcoming of a new male lion.
But in his first year in Africa, Christian learned a lot. He was ill-prepared, but all of his inborn instincts were present. He survived his first year there, and his second, and beyond.
In 1971, against the advice of many people, John and Ace returned to Kenya to see Christian in his native habitat. And this is where the above YouTube video was born. The two didn’t know if Christian would remember them, and engaging with wild lions is dangerous.
When Christian did finally encounter the two friends, it took a moment for him to recognize them, but when he did, he became the playful lion cub that they brought home that day in 1969. He ran toward them, jumping into their arms. Christian was excited to see them again.
By 1973, Christian was doing well but was not cohabitating with other lions all that well. Eventually, Christian would leave his sanctuary. The last time Christian was seen was in 1973, heading in the direction of Meru National Park.
Ace and John are hopeful that Christian found a pride of his own, lived a long, healthy life, and had some cubs of his own.