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Christian the Lion: The True Tale of a London Lion

Jun 08, 2010

There once was a furniture shop on King’s Road in London, England. It was filled with most of the things you’d expect a normal furniture shop to carry: tables, desks, chairs and TV sets. But if you happened to look through the front window on a Sunday, you may have seen something rather unusual: a lion. And it wasn’t stuffed!

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

Lion’s Tale

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

Christian the Lion became a furniture store pet when John Rendall and Ace Bourke bought him from Harrods Department Store in London in 1969. They’d visited the store’s “exotic animal” department with a friend, just for fun, when they saw the little lion cub in a small cage. They looked at each other and knew something had to be done.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

They bought Christian for 250 guineas and took him back to their shop (which happened to be named the Sophistocat Furniture Shop). There, he was giving his own living space and a lion-sized large litter box, which he always used, in the basement. For exercise, Christian was allowed to run around in a nearby cemetery; every day he and his master went there to kick a soccer ball around.

Raising a Lion

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

John and Ace spent a lot of time taking care of Christian – raising a lion cub is a lot of work! He also ate a lot – four big meals a day. He also had a great sense of humor. He liked to sit in the shop window, still as a statue, and just when the people looking in thought he must be a stuffed lion, he’d slowly turn his head and totally freak them out!

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

Everyone loved Christian and he became a local celebrity. He was very well behaved and never hurt a soul. But he was very big and very strong (he was a real lion, after all) and as he grew (Christian weighed 35 pounds as a cub and, just one year later, he was a whopping 185 pounds!) it was clear that he couldn’t stay with his two young owners in their small London shop forever.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

Christian Goes Home

What would become of Christian was eventually decided by a complete coincidence. Two actors who had starred in a movie about Africa wandered into the shop to buy a pine desk. They met Christian and told John and Ace that their film told the true story about a wildlife conservationist named George Adamson, who rehabilitated lions into the wild. They were sure that George would be able to help Christian.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

John and Ace contacted George, who warned them that, even though he was willing to help, rehabilitating Christian, who had been born in a zoo in Britain, raised in London and never been to Africa in his life, may not work. Still, everyone was willing to take a chance on giving Christian the life he deserved, in the wilds of Africa with other lions.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

At 12 months old, Christian was flown to Kenya in a specially made crate. John and Ace went with him. George met them and immediately took them to the Kora Reserve, where there was no human habitation. After they’d set up camp, George explained some of the challenges he thought they faced in rehabilitating Christian into the wilds of Africa. The main problem, he said, was that wild lions live and hunt in prides, and it’s VERY hard for a new male lion to break into an existing pride. If Christian could not be accepted into an existing pride, he’d become a solitary “nomad” lion, and his chances of survival would be VERY slim.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

To improve Christian’s chances, George planned to introduce him to the wild with another captive lion he was rehabilitating at the time named Boy. Boy had actually been one of the lions to star in the movie about George’s life (the film is called Born Free).

When Christian and Boy were introduced to each other, it was the first time Christian had seen another lion since he’d been a tiny baby at the zoo. He didn’t know how “normal” lions act when they meet each other, so he walked right up to Boy to say hello – Boy didn’t like that one bit! For the first few days, the two lions were separated by a safety fence that they could see but not make any physical contact through, and this is how they learned to like each other without risking them hurting each other.

At this point, John and Ace had to go back home to London. That meant leaving their beloved friend Christian behind. It was a sad goodbye, but George had lots of work to do to make sure Christian would be able to survive on his own in the wild. He kept working with the two lions every day, until they eventually established that Boy was the dominant one, meaning he was in charge. Once Christian learned that he had to respect Boy, the two were absolutely inseparable. That’s when George added a third lion – a female cub named Katiana – to the growing pride. Every day the three lions would go for a walk in the bush. Boy always went first, then Katiana and Christian was always at the rear. George walked behind them with a rifle in case he had to scare any other animals off. After all, these three tame lions still had to learn how to survive in the wild.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani

Wild Kingdom

There were all sorts of threats to the lions in the wild. But the biggest danger was the wild lions that stalked the reserve, which Boy was slowly fighting to establish as his pride’s territory. But then a tragedy occurred and Boy was killed. Everyone told George his “experiment” was over, but the wildlife expert refused to listen. Finally, in 1974, George wrote a letter to John and Ace in England, telling them that Christian’s new pride was established and their former pet was now a lion living in the wilds of Africa. He had learned to protect his territory and defend his little family (Katarina had given birth to her first litter of cubs) on his own. The pride was seen less and less by the humans at the reserve camp.

Hearing the good news, John and Ace decided to go back to Africa one last time, to see Christian in his new home and to say a final goodbye. George warned them that they were probably wasting their time. He hadn’t seen Christian in nine months (though he knew he wasn’t dead, as he would have heard reports of dead lion from the staff that regularly patrolled the reserve), and he felt that the London lion would likely never return as he was busy taking care of his new family.

But John and Ace decided to take the chance anyway. The made the long trip to the reserve and, when they finally arrived, George met them with incredible news: Christian had arrived the night before with his lionesses and his cubs. He was waiting for his human friends on his favorite rock just outside the camp.

What happened next is too incredible for words. Check out the video of Christian the lion’s reunion with his former human family:



A year later, Ace and John returned to Africa once more and were reunited with Christian again:



This video is the last record anyone has of Christian. After he’d come to see John and Ace one last time, no one ever saw him again.

Christian the LionCourtesy of Derek Cattani
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(All images in the story are courtesy of Derek Cattani / A Lion Called Christian Copyright 1971, 2009.)