A Lion Called Christian: Two Men and A Cat

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Derek Cattani

John Rendall, Christian the lion, and Anthony "Ace" Bourke relaxing at Leith Hill

A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion
By Anthony Bourke and John Rendall
221 pages; Broadway Books

The Gist:

In 1969, two flamboyantly dressed, long-haired hippies named Anthony Bourke and John Rendall purchased a lion cub from London's upscale department store Harrods — which, at the time, traded in exotic animals — and brought him to live in their Chelsea furniture store in the heart of Swinging London. Christian lived in the store, aptly named Sophisticat, for five months. He played well with children, was litter-trained, and only ruined the store's furniture by accident. But even the most domesticated lion is still too wild for London, so Bourke and Rendall embarked on the long, arduous task of rehabilitating their oversized housecat into the wild. With the help of lion expert George Adamson, they flew Christian to Kenya and helped him establish his own lion pride. A year later, Bourke and Rendall returned to Kenya to visit their lion. A video of their encounter and what happened next has been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube. (Read TIME's 1989 article on Adamson's murder by suspected poachers.)

Christian recognized the two men immediately. He wrapped his paws around their legs, nuzzled his nose to theirs, and rubbed his body against theirs the way kittens do when they want to be scratched. One watch of the video will explain why his story still captivates people 38 years later.

Highlight Reel:

1. On living in London: "Late in the afternoon, Christian would sit regally on the furniture in the shop window, in the spotlight and watch the activities of the World's End. He was the star attraction, and the people, particularly children, loved him and were very proud of him. He seemed to belong to all of them. In the window he drew appreciative crowds of regular admirers or astonished newcomers. These were happy hours. If there were too many people and his view was obscured, he simply changed windows. Several motorists, seeing Christian unselfconsciously displaying himself, bumped into the cars in front. And a conversation was overheard between a child and his mother on a passing bus: 'Mummy, there was a lion in that shop window!' 'Don't be ridiculous. If you don't stop this lying, I'll get your father to thrash you.'"

2. On the 1971 reunion captured on video: "Shortly afterwards Christian appeared at the top — about 75 yards away from us. He stared hard at us for a few seconds, and then slowly moved closer for a good look. He stared intently. He looked marvelous, and up on the rocks, he didn't appear much bigger. We couldn't wait any longer and called him. He immediately started to run down towards us. Grunting with excitement, this enormous lion jumped all over us, but he was very gentle ... Christian showed his affection in exactly the same way [as before], had all his old tricks and some new ones ... We gave him enormous respect and were a little less frivolous with him — a much more mature lion, but still most entertaining."

3. On what happened to Christian: "Early in 1973, Christian crossed the Tana River, going north in the direction of the Meru National Park, a much more attractive area and a good hunting ground. In a national park, animals were safer from poachers, hunters, and tribesmen with cattle. Sadly, George [Adamson] finally stop counting the days and months of Christian's absence from [his home], and he was never seen again. For the next few years, we waited for any news. We liked to imagine that he had established a territory and pride of his own a long way away, too far to return and visit George. We hoped that he would have lived another ten years and that his descendants live in Kenya today. He had miraculously returned to Africa, survived the most dangerous years, and was big and strong. We could not regret anything."

The Lowdown:

Lions live somewhere between 15-20 years, depending on their environment and the dangers they encounter. Although no one knows what happened to him after 1973, we can be certain that Christian left the world long ago. But thanks to YouTube and this book, Rendall and Bourke have been able to retell the story themselves. Packed with photos and amusing anecdotes — one time he walked in on someone showering! — A Lion Called Christian is an unabashedly stirring tale of a rare bond formed between humans and an animal. It is not overly sentimental or cloying because it doesn't need to be. To read this book is to feel, for a while, that Christian never left.

The Verdict:


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