The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.
Move over Kardashians, these media darlings not only knew how to build a huge fan base that lasted more than a few TV seasons, they also helped to change humans’ view of the animal world.
ELSA THE LIONESS (1956–61)
Elsa was one of three orphaned cubs rescued in the 1950s by George Adamson, the senior game warden of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. (Adamson and a scouting party had been called out to capture a lioness that was attacking people. When the lioness charged, the men killed her in self-defense… and only discovered her cubs, Elsa among them, afterward.) Two of the cubs went to a zoo, but George’s wife Joy insisted on keeping Elsa to raise, an idea that was unheard of then because, at the time, lions were just considered to be mindless killing machines.
Not Elsa, though. She was playful, loving, and devoted to the Adamsons. When she reached three years old, however, she’d grown so large and strong that the couple decided she couldn’t continue being a pet. So George began taking Elsa out to the bush, helping her learn to stalk animals, kill her own food, and fend for herself. Eventually, Elsa became the first captive lion successfully returned to the wild.
Elsa retained her affection for George and Joy, always returning home to visit. When she arrived one day with three cubs, it was clear she’d adapted to her new world. But life in the wild was hard— Elsa died of a blood disease before her cubs were grown. So the Adamsons raised them, too, and then set them free on the African plains.
Claim to fame: Joy Adamson wrote Born Free about raising Elsa and returning her to the wild. The book became a best seller and was made into a film in 1966. George trained the captive, but not-quite-tame lions that starred in the movie, and the natural charm of the lions helped make the film an international hit.
Legacy: Elsa’s love and loyalty changed an entire generation’s view of wild animals. For the first time, lions were seen as individuals with differing personalities, instead of brutes just to be hunted. The success of Elsa’s release into the wild also sparked a new movement to help captured animals to be returned to an environment that was as close as possible to what nature intended. When Elsa was returned to the wild, most people considered it a novel and even crazy idea, but today, returning animals to their native habitat is an important part of conservation. After Elsa’s death, Joy established Elsa Wild Animal Appeal to aid in the preservation of animal habitats. She also became a founder of the World Wildlife Fund. George founded the George Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust and worked full time teaching orphan and captive lions how to survive in the wild. And the actors who played Joy and George Adamson in the 1966 movie founded the Born Free Foundation to aid wild animals in captivity.
CHI-CHI THE GIANT PANDA (1957–72)
In 1958 Communist China was filling its formerly neglected Beijing Zoo with African animals, and Heini Demmer, an Austrian animal dealer, took Chi-Chi the panda in exchange for bringing giraffes, rhino, hippos, and zebras to China. Demmier planned to sell Chi-Chi to the Chicago Zoo, but the Cold War was raging and the United States was boycotting “communist goods,” so Chi-Chi was unable to enter the United States. Instead, she moved to the London Zoo, where she was supposed to stay just a few weeks because the organization had a policy of not buying endangered pandas. However, Chi-Chi was such a hit with visitors that the zoo decided to keep her anyway and give her a home.
Chi-Chi enjoyed being with humans and playing games, which immediately endeared her to the English public. A trip to Moscow to mate with the giant panda An An made daily, international headlines as hopes were high— but were dashed when the two animals didn’t get along. In London Chi-Chi was a star and indulged. She preferred human foods to bamboo, and got them, even chocolate treats. That poor diet was a likely reason that she died at only 15. (Today pandas can live more than 30 years in captivity.) Her stuffed body is now in London’s Natural History Museum.
Claim to fame: Chi-Chi was the first giant panda to arrive in Europe after World War II, and the first to cause “pandamania” in the Western world. With her entertaining and charming personality, Chi-Chi was often a headliner in international news, and she became a TV star after appearances on a live show called Zoo Time.
Legacy: In 1961 Chi-Chi’s image became the logo for the new World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is now one of the world’s largest independent conservation organizations. The use of a panda mascot influenced the WWF to pursue a partnership with China to research the animals. That research has helped biologists and conservationists better understand how to protect the beloved giants in the wild and in captivity.
ECHO THE AFRICAN ELEPHANT (1945–2009)
(Image credit: PBS)
Born in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Echo lived in a close-knit family unit with her mother, sisters, cousins, siblings, and children. Grown male elephants typically leave the family herd and live mostly solitary lives, but a female elephant can become a herd’s leader if she assumes responsibility for the group’s survival. In her mid-20s, Echo became the leader of her herd.
Echo dealt with the kind of challenges and tragedies that defeat many humans. When her calf was born with a crooked leg and couldn’t stand, Echo didn’t abandon him— she nurtured and encouraged him until he was finally able to walk. Years later, when another calf was abducted by a rival herd, Echo organized her largest elephants into a posse, charged the kidnappers, and took back her daughter. Echo also comforted her older daughter who lay dying after being shot by a hunter, and then took on the care of her orphaned grandchild. Under Echo’s leadership, her herd thrived and multiplied.
Claim to fame: In 1990 naturalist Sir David Attenborough made a documentary about Echo for the BBC. Over the next 20 years, as other films were made about Echo’s life and millions of TV viewers watched her work hard for the well-being of her family, Echo became the most admired elephant in the world.
Legacy: Watching happy elephants living in a close-knit family brought support to a movement to free the big animals from the circuses and zoos where they were solitary and confined. The Echo documentaries were also used by wildlife protection organizations to gain public support for preserving elephants in the wild. Plus, Echo’s famous herd still brings many tourists to Amboseli, and conservationists hope that the money made will help the Kenyans save their disappearing wildlife.
KOKO, THE GORILLA (1971–)
Born at the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July, Hanabi-Ko, or “Koko,” is a female lowland gorilla whose name means “fireworks child” in Japanese. In 1972 Stanford University graduate student Francine Patterson wanted to see if gorillas could communicate with humans. So she initiated Project Koko at the San Francisco Zoo and began teaching the young gorilla three words in sign language: “eat,” “drink,” and “more.”
Within weeks, Koko was signing. She and Patterson eventually moved to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, where they’re still working on Project Koko. To date, Koko has learned more than 1,000 signs, understands about 2,000 words, and has invented her own signs (a mask is an “eye hat,” for instance, and a ring is a “finger bracelet.”) Koko can even signs lies— she once pulled a sink out of its mooring but told Patterson that one of the zoo’s employees had done it. Most touching is Koko’s ability to use sign language to express her emotions of love and grief. She still signs about missing her kitten All-Ball, who died in 1984.
Claim to fame: “This fine animal gorilla” (as Koko has described herself) has starred in documentaries on PBS, been featured in National Geographic, and appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. With Patterson’s help, she’s had “conversations” with Betty White, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams, and even fans on AOL. The children’s book Koko’s Kitten— published in 1987 about her relationship with All-Ball, whom she named because he didn’t have a tail— became an international best seller.
Legacy: Before Koko and Patterson worked together, no one had tried to teach gorillas how to communicate; many people believed the animals were bad-tempered and unintelligent. And even though there is still some debate in the scientific community over whether Koko can really communicate as well as Patterson claims she does, Koko’s documented abilities have helped humans recognize that gorillas are actually pretty smart. Koko’s life story is also being used in Africa by conservationists because she helps convince locals that gorillas and their habitat should be saved.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.
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