In 1910, in what was then Austria-Hungary, Friederike Victoria Adamson was born, although she would often go by the name “Joy”.
As the daughter of an architect, she grew up with the privilege of being able to learn art and attend school.
She didn’t gain fame when she was young, just a passion for science and a drive for conservation. She first came to Africa during the conflicts surrounding World War II, her first husband had sent her there to keep her safe.
Falling in love with the country, she divorced and decided to stay. It was during these early days that she set out to document the culture and wildlife of Africa.
She enjoyed traveling and spent a great deal of time in tent camps while journeying.
Joy would go on to marry twice more during her life, with George Adamson her third husband whom she had met while on safari.
The day her Life changed
It was in 1956, that everything changed for her
Her husband, George, was working as a game warden in Kenya when he was charged by a lioness.
In self defense, he shot and killed her only to discover that the lioness had only been protecting her cubs.
They brought them home, intending to raise them, although this turned out to be a huge task. Some of the cubs were sent on to zoos, but they kept the smallest cub, one that they called Elsa.
Joy and George made a decision.
Instead of sending Elsa to a zoo as she grew older, they would instead rehabilitate her.
They would train her to hunt and survive on her own. Throughout the experience they kept careful notes about what did and did not work.
It was a few years later that Elsa became the first successful rehabilitation and release for a lioness. Elsa went on to set other milestones, such as the first known released lion to have cubs. Joy and her husband continued to study them, photographing and documenting their lives and researching their behavior.
Sharing Elsa’s story by living her passion
Joy wanted to share the story of these remarkable animals so she sat down to begin writing.
In 1960, Born Free was published and became a bestseller. Readers were captivated by the story and the photographs that Joy had taken of the lion cub growing up. Joy became an international celebrity and worked to raise money for wildlife.
She followed up Born Free with other books about Elsa and her cubs.
There were two sequels, Living Free and Forever Free.
She traveled around the world to talk about conservation and the dangers for African wildlife. In 1966, the fame of her work with Elsa soared due to the release of a movie based on Born Free featuring actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers to portray Joy and George. In the film the couple were portrayed as happy, but in reality they often lived separately.
Joy was rumored to have an intense personality and was very dedicated to her work.
George preferred protecting wildlife in the field, while Joy did so with her camera and her words.
Besides becoming an accomplished author throughout her life, Joy Adamson was also an artist. She created over 500 paintings and drawings in the course of her life, many of these of Africa and animals she cared for, including Elsa. It was these images along with her photographs that made the story of the little lion cub released to the wild an enduring story that inspired generations of conservationists.
In 1961, Elsa died of a natural disease leaving her three young cubs to fend for themselves. The cubs became a problem, hunting the livestock of local farmers instead of chasing wild prey. Joy and George didn’t want the farmers to kill them so they worked to capture them so they could move them into Serengeti National Park where they would be safe.
Widening Wildlife Conservation’s audience
Joy continued to write stories and became even more involved in conservation. She began work with other big cats, such as leopards and cheetahs she was able to spread her conservation further with her ability to inspire conservation in people abroad.
Pippa the cheetah was originally raised as a pet, but was given to Joy with the hopes that she would be returned to the wild. Since Joy had been successful with Elsa, she hoped to repeat it with the young cheetah.
Pippa was successful at learning to be wild again, having four litters of cubs before she died.
Two books would be written about her, The Spotted Sphinx and Pippa’s Challenge.
In 1976, Joy was given an orphaned leopard cub that was called Penny.
She was only eight weeks old. Just like Pippa and Elsa she was able to go back to the wild and have two litters of cubs. Joy’s book, Queen of Sheba, concerns that life and story and Penny. Unfortunately, Joy’s untimely death led to this book being published after she was gone.
On January 3, 1980, Joy’s body was discovered by her assistant. At first, he thought she had been killed by a lion, but further police investigation determined that her wounds could not have been caused by an animal. A former employee was charged and imprisoned for her murder.
It was a shocking end to an amazing life filled with passion for animals and the world they inhabited. Upon her death, many conservation organizations around the world mourned the loss of such a vehement defender and promoter of the rights of wildlife. Joy’s life has been captured as one of the many conservationists of the twentieth century who made great strides into the future of wildlife advocacy and rehabilitation.
This work has continued to improve and become ever more important to the survival of these iconic species that dwell on this planet.