The extraordinary story of the Harrods lion cub who charmed Chelsea
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For his owners, Anthony “Ace” Bourke and John Rendall, whose death at the age of 76 was announced yesterday, Christian the lion cub was famous among the bohemian and glamorous social world which congregated in that trendy part of south-west London and included The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix and Vivienne Westwood.
The extraordinary tale of the so-called Lion Man of Chelsea, as Rendall came to be known, began one cold December day in 1969. He had just arrived from Sydney where he had shared a room with old university friend Bourke who, unbeknown to him, had also just landed in London.
Quite by chance, Bourke was looking for a roommate for a King’s Road flat, above the furniture shop he worked in, appropriately named Sophisto-Cat.
Rendall moved in and, one day, suggested the pair visit the pet department of the world-famous Harrods store, where back in the day you could buy tapirs, snakes, monkeys, pumas and even lions.
This was before the Endangered Species Act of 1976, which made it illegal for exotic creatures to be sold to the public.
The two men gazed through the bars of the cage at the beautiful lion cub for sale and were instantly smitten.
Day after day, when the Christmas shoppers had gone home, the pair would show up at the Knightsbridge department store to play with their new pet and try to convince his keepers they’d be suitable owners.
Bourke had named him Christian and the men were determined to give him a better life than the boredom and captivity he knew.
Already weighing 2st, with razor-sharp teeth, the cub was more than a handful as he leapt around and wrestled with them.
Where, Harrods staff wanted to know, did the men think they’d house an energetic three-month-old lion cub?
The owner of Sophisto-Cat had grown up inAfrica.Would he agree to having a lion on the premises?
Surely a lion, Rendall argued, was the ultimate “Sophisto-Cat”, the perfect mascot? After all, there was a huge basement which Christian could have to himself, and his owners would be on hand upstairs to look after him. Amazingly, the owner agreed and Harrods approved; three weeks later Christian, for the princely sum of 250 guineas – about £5,000 in today’s money – was theirs.
A few days later, Rendall got a call: “Can you collect Christian tomorrow?”
The cub had escaped the night before and eaten a display of goat-skin rugs in the carpet department. For this extraordinary trio it was the start of a thrilling adventure, and Chelsea was the perfect place to keep a lion – no one batted an eyelid.
Among Sophisto-Cat’s close neighbours were Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, whose boutique later became the birthplace of the punk movement, and opposite was ultra-fashionable clothes store Granny Takes A Trip, where The Beatles, The Who, Cream and Jimi Hendrix were among the well-heeled customers.
The little cub’s new home was perfect – full of natural light and space for him to race around, often dragging his favourite plastic pig with him. Bedding, bones, toys and a large litter tray, which he learned to use after only a few days of encouragement, made it the perfect lion’s den.
The men set about feeding Christian from a detailed diet sheet supplied by Harrods: raw egg and vitamins for breakfast, raw meat – usually chopped beef or rabbit – for lunch and supper, and, as a cho special treat, a delicious marrow-filled bone at night.
Local restaurants and butchers offered cutprice meat and steaks past their sell-by date. But exercise soon became a concern as Rendall and Bourke didn’t know where to walk Christian in this densely populated and traffic-choked corner of London.
The local vicar came to their rescue when he offered them the use of a churchyard, near the shop.
It made an ideal playground, with a high entrance gate and brick walls.
Residents of the neighbouring flats would watch from their balconies and wave and cheer as Christian raced around chasing footballs – and his owners. Astonishingly, the pair never received a single complaint.
Friends would often come to join in. If Christian occasionally became a little too rough, his owners would stop the game, and he quickly got the message.
Soon, the three of them had settled into a regular routine.
By the time the men started work in the shop at 10am, Christian had been fed, enjoyed a ride in the car to the churchyard and a run, and was back in the basement napping.
At lunchtime, he would be wide awake again and ready for his first meat meal. Then it was playtime in the den with anybody who was free until tea time.
Christian would then wander happily around the shop, lounging on a table or chest of drawers in the window, where he had a good view of passing life.
Celebrity customers included Mia Farrow and Diana Rigg, who had no qualms about cuddling Christian. However, the latter’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service co-star, George Lazenby, did not live up to the macho 007 image and refused to enter the shop.
Rendall and Bourke were bombarded with requests to hire Christian out for parties, premieres and publicity shots but they said no – with the exception of a shoot with Vanity Fair, and racing driver James Hunt.
They also accepted an invitation to appear on Blue Peter that went disastrously wrong. During rehearsals, Christian was well behaved but by the time the show went live, he was bored.
As Valerie Singleton attempted to “interview” Christian on the Blue Peter sofa, he kept trying to run away. The pair soon realised the appearances were too stressful for Christian, who was not happy away from Sophisto-Cat and his churchyard.
At nearly a year old, Christian was growing rapidly and his owners were at a heartbreaking crossroads on their incredible journey: they had to set him free.
They considered sending him to Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire where some of the lions used in the hit movie Born Free – which told the story of how conservationists George and Joy Adamson had reintroduced Elsa, a hand-reared cub, into the wild in Africa – had been relocated.
Then actors Bill Travers and his wife Virginia McKenna, who had played George and Joy in the film, asked to come and meet Christian one day during a visit to the King’s
Road. Days later, Bill rang with a suggestion: he had contacted lion expert George Adamson in Kenya who had agreed to rehome Christian in the wild.
Whilst it was what Rendall and Bourke wanted, they were worried about how a lion born in a zoo in Devon and sold in a department store would adapt to Africa? Could he survive? Two weeks after Christian’s first and last birthday in England in August 1970, the two men and photographer Derek Cattani, who had documented the lion’s early life, landed with the cub in Nairobi – Christian’s ancestral homeland.
In George Adamson’s jeep, the party set off for the Kora reserve 250 miles away.
When they took Christian for his first walk in Africa, they witnessed the animal instincts that would ensure his survival.
Spotting a lost cow in the bush, Christian instantly froze and began stalking his prey, stealthily creeping forwards.
George was worried about the cow’s horns and told the men to grab Christian.
For the first time ever, the lion turned and snarled at them, leaving the pair profoundly shaken by the transformation in Christian from biddable pet to a deadly hunter.
Although sad that it was time to say goodbye, the pair were relieved to see he possessed the instincts he needed to stay alive in the wild.
“Once we’d got him to Africa, I think Ace particularly had a real sense of, ‘my God, we’ve done it. Phew’.” said John years later.
“But it was also sad: this wonderful presence had gone.”
A year later, in the summer of 1971, the men returned to Kora to see George and, they hoped, Christian.
George warned them not to get their hopes up as Christian, now the head of a small pride, hadn’t been seen for weeks. But when they landed in Nairobi, George was beaming.
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“The lions turned up this morning,” he said. “Christian must have known you were coming.”
At the Kora camp, George identified a spot for a reunion. He told Rendall and Bourke he would lead the lions to a rock, from where they, and a cameraman friend, Simon Trevor, who had been making a film about their story, could see Christian. As he crested the brow, Christian stopped and stared.
Then he walked slowly down towards them, staring the whole time. Tall, lean, strong and confident, his body language was self-assured.
“Call him,” George said. The moment he heard his former owners’ voices, Christian ran towards them, grunting with excitement.
Watching the 300lb lion bounding towards them at about 20 miles an hour was a breathtaking moment – would he greet or attack them?
Bracing themselves, suddenly Christian was jumping up, rubbing their heads, and running backwards and forwards between them as he tried to embrace both men at the same time.
He knew exactly who they were. Simon captured the wonderful moment of reunion on film and it has since had more than 100 million views on YouTube.
Never mind Cecil and Simba, Christian is one of the most famous lions there has ever been.
“I look at the photos of that meeting and realise how overwhelmed I was by the powerful emotion,” Rendall said in an interview.
“At that moment, the gulf between humans and lions had been blurred by sheer euphoria.”
It’s more than 50 years since Christian disappeared into the wild forever, but George was certain he heard him mating and was confident that he had established his own pride.
When the two men took Christian to Kenya in 1970, there were 400,000 lions in Africa.
Today there are fewer than 20,000 and Rendall, who became a dedicated conservationist, continued to highlight the plight of the king of the jungle.
Rendall, who was found dead in his study on Sunday by his magician son, Max, said in an interview once: “Christian changed my life forever and I will never forget him.”
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