At first it seemed a cruel and perverse twist of fate. Celebrated naturalist Joy Adamson, 69, whose 1960 best-seller, Born Free, made a lion cub named Elsa as lovable as Winnie-the-Pooh, was reported mauled to death in the bush by a lion. As further details emerged from Kenya, however, it appeared that Joy had died not in the claws of the animals she adored but at the hands of the species she mistrusted: mankind. Puncture wounds in her body indicated that she had been murdered; three former employees were being questioned by local police. “She was an incredible woman, but very difficult to get along with,” says wildlife expert Roger Caras, a close friend. “Rarely did she have any long-lasting personal relationships. She was so stubborn and unyielding and people did not live up to her expectations. She rarely met anyone as strong as herself.”
Born to wealth in Hapsburg Austria, even as a child she adored the deer and foxes that abounded on the family estate. A 1937 vacation in Kenya introduced Joy to her personal paradise. She worked there as a highly accomplished painter of plants and animals until she met George Adamson on safari in 1945. An Anglo-Irish game warden, he became her third husband, and Joy discovered her true vocation: surrogate mother to foundling wild cats.
After raising Elsa, whose mother George shot in self-defense, Joy taught the mature lion to hunt and reintroduced her to the wild. Out of that experience came three books, a movie, a hit song, a TV series and the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal for conservation. In recent years Joy welcomed cheetahs and leopards into her adopted family. But her marriage grew strained, and since 1971 the Adamsons have not lived together. “You have to be part of nature to understand it; and you can only do that when you are completely in tune with it,” Joy wrote a decade ago. “I find I can only do it when I’m alone. I’m not a hermit, but there is no other way I can do it if I am to go into the depths of an animal’s solitary life and be in tune with what it means. But it means a terribly lonely life.”
Living on the Shaba Game Preserve in central Kenya, she would spend her days in the bush, customarily returning by 7 p.m. to listen to the news on BBC shortwave. When she failed to appear on January 3, her employees began to worry and an hour later found her body near the compound. “It was a tragedy that she was taken from us in the bush surrounded by the animals she loved so well,” said the Rev. Bill Owen, delivering the eulogy over a coffin crowned with a wreath of African flowers. The real tragedy, said many of Joy’s acquaintances, is that the naturalist had grown so intemperate in recent years, alienating even the people closest to her and treating aides as chattel. “She got so lost in her animals,” says her former secretary Kathy Porter, “that she lost compassion for homo sapiens.”