Fun

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Christian the Lion

True love.

Can you imagine walking into a furniture store and seeing, among the living room sets and wardrobes and armchairs, a fuzzy little lion cub stretched out on the floor for you to pet? I know it sounds like the beginning of a really awesome dream, but this was a real experience for those who shopped at Sophisticat on King’s Road in London circa 1970. At the time the area was the absolute height of British cool. Its most famous resident was Mick Jagger. However, even cool cat Mick (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) couldn’t compete with his neighbor, Christian, the friendly baby lion who liked to give human-style hugs. Maybe you’ve already cried over his lovability and wished for a lion snuggle of your own while refreshing the video on YouTube over and over again, but if not, I’m warning you now—break out the Kleenex, because this story is like an Elliott Smith album multiplied by freshly-cut onions in terms of tear-jerkery, except you’ll be weeping tears of pure joy.

Image via Daily Mail

Anyway, you’re probably wondering how Christian’s living scenario came to be. If anything even close to an animal as exotic as a lion showed up in a boutique these days, you KNOW it would be a huge scandal, and rightfully so. However, in the late ’60s, before the passage of global laws protecting endangered species, an English department store, Harrods, sold all kinds of exotic “pets” to wealthy people, including camels, baby elephants (the Prince of Albania bought one for Ronald Reagan; Nancy called him “GOP”), and Christian, who had been acquired from a defunct zoo in a British resort town. Anyone with enough cash up front could buy an undomesticated wild animal, regardless of their ability to properly care for it. One afternoon in 1969, a man named John Rendall went to check out the store and was appalled to discover a beautiful lion cub confined to a small cage. Naturally, he freaked out and bought Christian for 250 pounds, which would be something like $4,000 today. Wouldn’t you do the same if you saw a cuddly cub in that sad situation? I know I would, even if my parents said no. “I mean, I promise to walk him!”

Nowadays, even corner pet stores and shelters will give you very detailed instructions for how to care for your dog or cat or guinea pig, but Harrods sent Rendall off with nothing more than some diet information. For a LION. In the middle of LONDON.

Image via Daily Mail

Despite their lack of experience with large African wildcats, Rendall and three friends made sure that Christian had everything he needed to be a happy little cub. He had his own large living quarters in the basement of Sophisticat, which was owned by Rendall, and was allowed to play outdoors in a secluded graveyard nearby. He was also fed quite well—Rendall provided four meals and supplementary vitamins every day. In return, the lion showed plenty of affection to his owners and the store’s customers, who considered him a friendly local celebrity. Christian was welcomed into the area’s restaurants and clubs, arriving in his owner’s Bentley like a total boss. Christian loved to be in public, and would show off by getting on his back legs to hug Rendall or other people who were warm to him. Christian was so famous for imitating human behavior that the documentary about him is subtitled, The Lion Who Thought He Was People.

Image via Listen and Read

However, this mutual admiration between man and beast wasn’t enough to sustain Christian’s life on King’s Road—the thing about lions is that, unlike your average housecat, they eventually grow into terrifyingly enormous predators. After a year, he was almost two hundred pounds and looked less like a kitten than a man-eater, though he retained his sweetheart demeanor. His owners realized that Christian needed a more suitable home. It was time for him to leave the furniture store and go somewhere where he could live the wild life that every good lion deserves (the “bad” ones deserve it too).

Luckily, right around the time that Christian was outgrowing the store, a solution presented itself in the form of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. The two had recently acted in the movie Born Free, which coincidentally told the story of conservationists George and Joy Adamson’s attempts to return a domesticated lion to the wild. They suggested Rendall enlist the help of the real-life Adamsons, who were now living in Africa. So in 1971, Rendall and his friend Anthony “Ace” Bourke, who had helped him raise Christian, flew with their furry pal to Kenya, where they met the Adamsons and planned to help Christian adapt to his new surroundings.

Wild lions have a strict hierarchy in their prides, which are like tight-knit extended families. A typical pride will have three to four female lions, one or two males, and their cubs, and it’s incredibly difficult to introduce a new lion to a pre-existing pride without inflaming tensions; it would be like the new girl plopping down at the lunch table of your high school’s snobbiest clique. It was going to take a lot of work to ensure Christian’s well-being as he transitioned from a pampered playboy into the kind of beast that roamed the ancestral plains.

George Adamson, Rendall, and Bourke planned to release Christian along with Boy, the lion who had starred in Born Free, so that the two could acclimate together and begin a new pride of their own. The lions were brought to a park, where they were housed in adjoining pens, separated by a wire fence. It was the first time Christian had met another lion since birth, and his lack of knowledge about the delicate social order of lions would probably have gotten him killed otherwise. Young male lions like Christian are supposed to observe a biological subservience to lions that are older, like Boy. The younger lion must wait to be approached by the older lion if he doesn’t want to get mauled beyond belief. (I imagine it would be like the time I brought a sketchy new boyfriend to my high school graduation party and my dad basically threatened to disappear him, but with just a little more blood.) However, Christian was used to the world fawning over his very existence and had no idea that his interactions with Boy would be any different. When Christian ambled right over to the fence to check out his new friend, Boy hurled himself violently against it in anger. This process repeated itself day after day until Christian finally learned to show submission to Boy. Then the fence was removed, and it was time for the newly-united Christian and Boy to start establishing their own pride on the Adamsons’ nature reserve. Then it was basically like every buddy-cop movie you’ve ever seen, with the curmudgeonly older dude slowly warming to the young hotshot—think Men in Black with zebras instead of aliens.

After a few years, George Adamson called Rendall to let him know that Christian’s pride was now self-sufficient, and that he, his females, and their cubs rarely came back to camp. Although Rendall and Ace were thrilled that their pampered London lion cub was now fully acclimated to the wild, they missed their friend. So they decided to travel to Kenya in order to say a final goodbye. GET READY, because here’s what happened when they did (this is actually the second time they went back, bringing a film crew with them, but it was a repeat performance of that first reunion):

HUGE LION HUGS, just like the ones Christian used to give as a cub. Even as a wild and free adult lion, he still loved his friends, showing his joyous affection by bashing his head into them repeatedly. Look at the way he sprints up to them when he recognizes who they are after years of being away! DAMMIT, CHRISTIAN, YOU ARE BREAKING MY HEART. FINALLY, PROOF that love transcends species, and that it lives on even in the wildest (LOL) situations.

There’s a lot to adore about the story of Christian the lion, but I think what’s most special about it is that the people involved didn’t love selfishly. Despite their attachment to Christian, his human companions knew it wasn’t right to keep him cooped up, however swankily, when he should have been stalking the shit out of some zebras on the plains in Africa. When you see Christian hug Ace and Rendall as a full-grown, healthy lion with a family of his own, it’s clear that they made the right choice. And also that lions are adorable. ♦

32 Comments

  • runningfilm July 24th, 2012 3:05 PM

    I just saw the special about Christian the London Lion a few nights ago! I was wondering if I’d ever see it on here…

  • Susann July 24th, 2012 3:05 PM

    Super, super cute! The second picture is adorable!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • rosiesayrelax July 24th, 2012 3:21 PM

    Yeah, didn’t people keep crocodiles and everything? That’s insane! But he is a lovely lion :)

    Rosie Say Relax

  • mdoodle13 July 24th, 2012 3:21 PM

    Who doesn’t want their own Christian the lion?

  • Maggie July 24th, 2012 3:22 PM

    Amy Rose, do you know of a good charity for wild animal rehabilitation? I love this piece and I feel inspired to give away all my money (I have like 24 dollars) so there can be more happy lions

  • Nishat July 24th, 2012 3:26 PM

    This is the cutest thing ever oh my gosh. I want a lion now (but that’s so not the point of this story, and it’s probably the opposite.)

    Take care of your animals selflessly and they will love you for all time, kids. Lol.

  • kzspygv July 24th, 2012 3:34 PM

    This is so great! I’ve seen the video dozens of times (DOZENS I say), but I knew nothing about Christian’s day-to-day life before being released into the wild. That is one swanky Cat.

  • Eryn July 24th, 2012 3:34 PM

    AWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!! I want one.

  • uaresoawesome July 24th, 2012 4:20 PM

    Aw, I had heard about this ages ago but never bothered to look into it. SO MUCH LOVE!! :D

  • ladyjenna July 24th, 2012 4:44 PM

    I remember reading a book when I was little called Herbert the Lion, about a little girl who wants nothing more than a lion…the illustrations are fabulous!!! This reminds me so much of it!

  • Abby July 24th, 2012 5:15 PM

    When I heard about this video years ago, I was singing “I don’t wanna miss a thiiiinnnngggg” for WEEKS afterward. Seriously.

  • missblack July 24th, 2012 5:28 PM

    haha my grandmother was ALL OVER THIS when it actually happened in the 70s. A while ago the show about Christian the lion was on TV and she told us all about how it was in like every newspaper (even in middle-of-the-forest-almost-Canada Vermont) and she thought it was, like, the awesomest thing ever.

    Little&Trivial

  • littlenashrambler July 24th, 2012 5:37 PM

    OMG! I read this book when I was 7, and I loved the story! I read it again last year, and then started watching Animal Planet, and saw that video the exact same day! So cute!

  • July 24th, 2012 5:38 PM

    This is the CUTEST thing EVER! I want a pet lion :(
    http://thelunalovingbookworm.tumblr.com/

  • mohgan July 24th, 2012 5:52 PM

    That was the cutest video like EVER, I was literally saying aww the whole time. This was my first time hearing about christian the lion and this was an awesome story. :)

    inside-adeoti.blogspot.com

  • elizafarts July 24th, 2012 7:48 PM

    I watched that video once in the car and showed my cousin while she was driving and we had to pull over because we couldn’t stop sobbing. It’s just too cute/adorable/heartwarming etc. ♥

  • steph.anie11 July 24th, 2012 8:14 PM

    These type of pieces just make me so happy! More please!! :)

  • Adrienne July 24th, 2012 9:51 PM

    I’ve watched the documentary a few years ago! So sad yet so touching. :)

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Alexx July 25th, 2012 12:12 AM

    I can’t believe this is on Rookie!!! I saw a Christian the Lion video (the one with Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing by Aerosmith playing in the background, which made it like ten times better) a few months ago and after watching it I literally started BAWLING. And I don’t usually cry for this type of stuff, but the whole story was just so touching that I couldn’t help it! Watching this makes me want a pet lion cub so bad! Even though I know its probably illegal and wouldn’t work out . . oh well :s

  • SpencerBowie July 25th, 2012 2:58 AM

    I saw that vid with I Will Always Love You by Whitney playing…I BAWLED MY EYES OUT!!! Such a sweet vid of true love!!!!

  • streaked lights July 25th, 2012 3:26 AM

    Omigosh I feel like crying, this is absolutely adorable and heartwarming and… AHHHHHHH!

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

  • julalondon July 25th, 2012 5:50 AM

    OMG that is so cute and adorable and i didn’t know about that ’til now!!!

  • ivoire July 25th, 2012 6:16 AM

    this was sooooooooooooo cute! ah~~~

  • FlaG July 25th, 2012 8:29 AM

    I refuse to watch the video because I know as soon as I press play I will start crying.

    CRY ALL THE TEARS.

  • giov July 25th, 2012 9:31 AM

    I remember reading about this maybe a year ago and thinking “can you imagine what kind of amazing lives did these London dandies have, to take a cub lion home for fun?”.

    fascinating stuff.

  • illonablyton July 25th, 2012 10:47 AM

    This was so beautiful, I actually cried. Pets/wild animals really do remember, right? Love, love, love! ♥

  • marthaflatley July 25th, 2012 1:43 PM

    an awesome thing you forgot to mention: 1 time the other lions saw his former owners in the wild and were about to attack them, but christian signalled them not to and saved their lives. Great book!

  • NotReallyChristian July 25th, 2012 5:43 PM

    I like to think I’m named after this lion, because otherwise I’m named after a religion … and as an agnostic (and not a very pro-Christianity one tbh – I’m reading a book right now about the protection of paedophile priests by the Pope which is making me SO ANGRY) that’s kind of lame. Happy lion though – I could get behind that.

  • Rachelll July 26th, 2012 4:41 AM

    I saw this video for the first time last year and it made me cry. I wanted to buy the book and film but had completely forgotten about it until now! Such a beautiful story, and quite amazing to think that he was sold by Harrods. You just can’t imagine it now ~

  • RhiaSnape July 26th, 2012 10:34 AM

    I have always ADORED the story of Christian the lion, I just think that it’s the sweetest and most incredible story, and just proves that what we define as ‘beast’ or ‘dangerous’ only comes from what we think we know, when in reality, things are only how they are due to experience and how they’ve been brought up. I discovered this ages ago, watched countless videos and documentaries, but still it doesn’t cease to amaze me.

  • juliette July 27th, 2012 9:22 AM

    Okay who else cried watching that video.

  • potameides October 7th, 2012 5:38 PM

    Christian is very sweet looking. The hug is extremely cute but I’d be running for my life with that massive animal coming towards me! :)

    This story seems a bit better than “Project Nim”- a ‘scientific experiment’ with a chimp in the 1970′s who was raised as a human.

    Project Nim first had me intrigued, then disturbed and traumatised as I saw the hedonistic hippy lady who wasn’t able to look after primates, deciding that he had sexual desire for her and showed interest in exploring her body- urrgh.

    Everything that happened to him was awful, especially ending up in that animal testing centre.

    I guess the message is don’t introduce a wild animal to human living without expecting consequences!