Christian the Lion's original owners talk about him and their remarkable reunion

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 30, 2008 09:30 AM

Already familiar to more than 7 million viewers thanks to a YouTube clip featuring Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and film footage of his African jungle reunion with the two men who had raised him in London, Christian the “Hugging Lion” was a heartwarming topic on Wednesday’s Today show.

Originally purchased in 1969 by two Australians living in London, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke, from the exotic pets department of Harrods – which no longer sells wild animals – the lion cub was raised in a churchyard (hence, his name) and accompanied his owners to their furniture shop every workday.

“Christian used to lie beside me while I did the accounts at weekends,” shop employee Jennifer Mary Taylor recalled for Britain’s Daily Mail. “And every so often, if I’d ignored him for too long, he’d sock me across the head with one of his great big paws.”

Eventually, 1-year-old Christian became too large to remain in such captivity, so Rendall and Bourke – with the help of Kenya-based conservationist George Adamson (he and his wife, Joy Adamson, were the subject of the beloved movie Born Free) – helped Christian adapt to his natural environment, and he was returned to the wild in Kenya.

Rendall and Bourke decided to visit Christian in 1971, though Adamson warned them that their former charge might not remember them. Even so, when the three encountered one another, though Christian was tentative at first, he leapt toward the men, as if to embrace their shoulders. He also could not stop licking their faces.

Christian also introduced Rendall and Bourke to his pride of two female lions and a foster cub.

An even more remarkable reunion occurred in 1974, after Adamson had advised the men that Christian had not been seen for months. The day before the humans arrived at Adamson’s compound, they learned Christian and the other lions had arrived there the day before. And their remarkable greeting is the one shown in the YouTube clip.

That, however, was the last time Rendall and Bourke ever saw Christian.

Today‘s Meredith Vieira was ready to suggest a road trip, though she also asked the question about the longevity of lions.

According to the Web site of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., the chances of Christian’s still roaming the African plains are slim. “Zoo lions may live up to 25 years,” it says, “while wild lions live about 15 years.”