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Joy Adamson (20 January 1910 in Troppaumarker, Austrian Silesiamarker – 3 January 1980) was a naturalist and author, best known for her book, Born Free, which described her experiences in raising Elsa from cub to lioness. The book Born Free was an international bestseller and printed in several languages and it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie with the same title, Born Free. In addition to these major achievements, Joy was an accomplished artist and many of her paintings are displayed in a museum in Nairobimarker, Kenyamarker.

Early life

She was born Friederike Victoria Gessner to Victor and Traute Gessner in Troppaumarker, Silesiamarker, Austria-Hungary (now Opavamarker, Czech Republicmarker), the second of three girls (her sisters were Traute and Dorle). Her parents divorced when she was young and she was sent to live with her grandmother, whom she called Oma, the German equivalent of Grandma. In her autobiography The Searching Spirit she wrote about her beloved Oma, "It is to her I owe anything that may be good in me." As an adult, she was distant from most of her family. As a young adult, she considered the careers of concert pianist and medicine before adventure took her away from Europe. After her first love affair left her heartbroken, she married three times in the span of ten years. Her first marriage was to a Jewish-Austrian, Viktor von Klarwill, who sent her to Africa to find a safe place for the two of them to live out World War II. There she met and married the botanist Peter Bally, who gave her the nickname "Joy". With her third husband, game warden George Adamson (whom she met while on safari in the early 1940s), she made her home in Kenyamarker.

Elsa and her cubs

Joy Adamson is best known for her conservation effort with Elsa the Lioness. In 1956, George Adamson, then game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, in the course of his job, shot and killed a lioness as she charged him and another man. He did not realize until later that the lioness was protecting her cubs and nearby were found the lioness' three cubs, which he took home to raise. The cubs did not eat for two days, but soon they were thriving. Early on, George attended to their physical needs, while Joy Adamson and her pet Pati, a rock hyrax, raised them. Joy was completely devoted to the cubs from the beginning. After six months, it became apparent that three growing cubs were too much for the Adamsons and their staff. The two larger cubs, Lustica and the Big One, were sent to a zoo in Rotterdammarker, but the third, Elsa, the Adamsons kept and remained attached to.

The Adamsons decided to set Elsa free rather than send her to a zoo. They spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own and were successful in the end: Elsa became the first lioness released successfully, the first to have contact after release, and the first known to have cubs. The Adamsons did their best to keep their distance from the cubs so they would remain wild, but they got close enough to photograph them. Elsa would actually stand between the humans and the cubs if she felt her human friends were getting too close.

After Elsa’s death in January 1961, which was brought on by a disease from a tick bite, the Adamsons worked to rescue young Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa from possible execution. Without their mother to feed and guide them, the cubs had become a nuisance, killing livestock and angering the locals. The cubs were always somewhat aloof from their mother’s foster parents, so getting them near enough to capture was a challenge. George constructed three identical cage traps, and after much waiting, the three were captured and transported to neighboring country Tanzania, where they were promised a home at a national park. In The Story of Elsa, a compilation of the books about Elsa, Adamson wrote: "My heart was with them wherever they were. But it was also with these two lions here in front of us; and as I watched this beautiful pair, I realized how all the characteristics of our cubs were inherent in them. Indeed, in every lion I saw during our searches I recognized the intrinsic nature of Elsa, Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa, the spirit of all the magnificent lions in Africa."

In the 1960s, she lived at Elsamere on the shores of Lake Naivashamarker. Elsamere is now an Education Center and visitors to Kenya can stay there and visit local wildlife.

Writer and celebrity

Using her own notes and George’s journals, Joy Adamson wrote the book Born Free. She submitted it to a number of publishers before it was bought by Harvill Press, part of HarperCollins, and published in 1960, the year it became a number-one New York Times bestseller. The success of the book was largely due not just to the captivating story of Elsa, but to the dozens of photographs of her. Readers had pictures of many of the events of Elsa’s life leading up to her release, and they found the whole story enchanting. All subsequent books by both George and Joy would be filled with photographs.

Born Free received largely favorable reviews from critics who were as spellbound as the public. The Adamsons became known the world over. Adamson, who had worked closely with publishers in order to properly promote the book, was not surprised by its success. She would spend the rest of her life earning money for wildlife, thanks to the popularity of Born Free. It was followed by Living Free, which is about Elsa as a mother to her cubs, and Forever Free, which tells of the release of Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa. She was generous in some ways- all of the proceeds from the books went to fund conservation projects- but she did not share any of the proceeds with George, from whom she separated, though he was a driving force behind Elsa's release and though his journals formed the basis for Born Free.

The 1966 film Born Free, starring husband-and-wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna and filmed in the bush over the course of many months, was a worldwide hit. The stars got to know the real Adamsons, and the couples remained friends for life, working for wildlife causes. Travers and McKenna decided to do all of their own scenes with the lions in the film in order to recreate the close relationship that Joy and George Adamson had with Elsa, a serious commitment and risk on the actors’ part, but one that made the film more realistic. Perhaps the most important thing about the filming of Born Free is that some of the lions used for the film gained the same freedom Elsa had. This story was told in a documentary produced by Bill Travers titled The Lions Are Free [34164] which was made available on DVD in the United Kingdom in 2005.

The film, which went on to win two Academy Awards, both for music, is a family classic and true to the spirit of Elsa. Six years later, Susan Hampshire took over the role of Joy Adamson in Living Free, a film based on the third “Elsa book,” Forever Free.

Later life

Pippa and Penny

During Elsa’s lifetime, Joy and George Adamson needed each other to educate her, but after she was dead and her cubs were forever free, their interests went in separate directions, as did their lives. While neither divorced nor legally separated, their conflicting interests (George wanted to continue to work with lions and she with cheetahs), made it necessary for them to live apart (though they sometimes spoke of living together again, it never happened ). Every year they got together for Christmas, and they remained on good terms.

While television specials kept the Adamsons’ cause in the spotlight, Adamson spent her last ten years traveling the world to give speeches, further influencing the public to care for animals. A book of her paintings was published at this time. She rehabilitated a cheetah and an African Leopard at her Kenyan home, Elsamere. Pippa the cheetah was raised as a pet and given to Adamson at the age of seven months in hopes that she could be released like Elsa was. Pippa had four litters before her death. Adamson wrote The Spotted Sphinx and Pippa’s Challenge about Pippa and her cheetah family. Later, Adamson reached her goal of many years: she obtained an African Leopard cub. Penny was eight weeks old when a ranger acquaintance of Adamson’s found her in 1976. Penny had a litter of two cubs before the publication of Queen of Shaba, Adamson’s posthumous and final book.

Murder and Legacy

On 3 January 1980, in Shaba National Reserve in Kenyamarker, Joy Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Peter Morson (sometimes reported as Pieter Mawson). He mistakenly assumed that she had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media. Her two former husbands as well as George were alive at the time of her death; Von Klarwill and George Adamson came to the memorial service, but Bally preferred to keep his feelings private and said his goodbyes at the mortuary.

Further police investigation found that Adamson's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded that she was murdered with a sharp instrument. Paul Nakware Ekai, a discharged labourer formerly employed by Adamson, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison, escaping capital punishment by hanging because the judge ruled that he was a minor when the crime was committed.

George Adamson was murdered nine years later, in 1989, near his camp in Kora National Parkmarker, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers. George is credited with saving the tourist's life, but his act of bravery cost him his own.

Author and subject

In addition to her books about big cats, a book of her artwork was published, and so was an autobiography entitled The Searching Spirit. Her widower George Adamson's second autobiography, My Pride and Joy, was published in 1986.


Adamson appeared in "The Bargain" and "Death Walks by Night," two second-season episodes of the Britishmarker television crime drama The Vise, which were broadcast in 1955.


  • Born Free: A lioness of two worlds (1960) [34165] ISBN 1-56849-551-X
  • Elsa: The Story of a Lioness (1961)
  • Living Free: The story of Elsa and her cubs (1961) ISBN 0-00-637588-X
  • Forever Free: Elsa's Pride (1962) ISBN 0-00-632885-7
  • The Spotted Sphinx (1969) ISBN 0-15-184795-9
  • Pippa: The Cheetah and her Cubs (1970) ISBN 0-15-262125-3
  • Joy Adamson's Africa (1972) ISBN 0-15-146480-4
  • Pippa's Challenge (1972) ISBN 0-15-171980-2
  • Peoples of Kenya (1975) ISBN 0-15-171681-1
  • The Searching Spirit: An Autobiography (1978) ISBN 0-00-216035-8
  • Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard (1980) ISBN 0-00-272617-3
  • Friends from the Forest (1980) ISBN 0-15-133645-8


  • Elsa & Her Cubs, [34166] - 25 minutes Benchmark Films Copyright MCMLXXI by Elsa Wild Animal Appeal and Benchmark Films, Inc.
  • Joy Adamson - About the Adamsons, [34167] Producer-Benchmark Films, Inc.
  • Joy Adamson's Africa - (1977) - 86 minutes [34168]
  • The Joy Adamson Story (1980) [34169] Programme featuring interviews with Joy Adamson about her life and work in Austria and in Africa, and her famous lioness Elsa. Director: Dick Thomsett Production Company: BBC
  • Bibliography of films by and about Joy and George Adamson.


  • My Pride and Joy by George Adamson
  • Born Free by Joy Adamson
  • The Story of Elsa by Joy Adamson

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