End of the Line
The funny thing about being chewed up by a lion is that they don't bite chunks out of you-they suffocate you. All that firepower and they use a pillow. I suppose I should be glad of it: 400 pounds of full grown lion pouncing on my back had already knocked the breath out of me. And when he put my head in his mouth and started to squeeze, it wasn't long before I began to lose consciousness. Only when he clawed at my stomach did I wake up and my will to live reassert itself. It was just like that moment when you've been tumbled by a big wave and lost your surfboard: abruptly the light pierces the swirling water and, realizing you want to live, you kick toward the surface. I pushed my fist above my head and into the lion's mouth. But I wasn't strong enough: he was going to kill me, the bastard. I can remember wondering, as I faded away: Which one was it? A wild lion or one of ours?
It was one of ours-Shyman-and it was another one of ours-Freddie-who saved me. I had raised Freddie from the time he was a cub, but unlike that big thug Shyman, whom we had never handled, he liked me. Freddie charged Shyman and distracted him just long enough for me to regain a bit of consciousness and get into the fetal position. Freddie went for Shyman at least four or five times as Shyman came back to grab some other part of me. Even then the bigger lion got me round the neck and started to strangle me. I went through that Reader's Digest tunnel, my life ebbing away-the festering garbage dump at the camp gates my last view of the world. I knew what was happening. And as I gave in to the blackness, I was furious about that rubbish.
I had been working with George Adamson-the Kenyan game warden who reintroduced lions to the wild and was made famous by his wife's book Born Free-for the past four years, and it was he who dragged me from the lion's maw. Alerted by our foreman Erigumsa, George came charging out of our camp armed only with a short stick. He found Shyman dragging me off in his mouth, my body trailing between his front legs, blood pouring from holes in my neck, shoulders, and body. I was dead as far as the Old Man was concerned. George charged at the lion and, together with Freddie, managed to see off Shyman and pull me away. But without Freddie, I wouldn't have stood a chance. I'd been attacked by one lion and saved by another.
I'd lost a tooth and one of my ears was hanging off. A hole large enough to put my fist through had been bitten in my right shoulder and neck. It would be a couple of painful weeks before I was back on my feet again, but I consider it my closest shave yet, and not much to have paid for the privilege of living with animals since the day in 1971 that George Adamson took me on.
Mine was a long journey to George's camp in Northern Kenya, but I feel as if it wasn't until I arrived there in 1971 that my life really started. That said, I was actually born in 1945, rather freer than I would have liked-on the wrong side of the tracks, at the end of the line. I was raised in Cockfosters, the very farthest north you can go on London's Piccadilly Line. My mother was a bank clerk; my father abandoned her before I was born. One of tens of thousands who met a similar fate during the Second World War, she tried to bring me up on her own, but it was very hard to do when there was no work, little food, and a hatful of stigma attached to dragging around a small boy without a father. When I was about seven months old she gave me up for adoption at the Church of England Children's Society. I don't know what happened to her, and I have never seen her again. Nor do I know who my birth father was. I've been told he was highly decorated, married, and in the RAF, but I'm really not sure; I can't remember whether that's true or wishful thinking, and I can't find out now because most of the society's records have disappeared. My adoptive parents, however, I know all about. Leslie and Hilda Fitzjohn came and got me when my age was still measured in months. They took me to Cockfosters, where they lived the kind of life I've been trying to escape from ever since.
My dad worked in a bank. He got on a train every day and went off to places like Greenwich, Covent Garden, and Tooting. He had been in the Supply Corps of the Desert Rats during the war, and had seen some pretty unpleasant sights during his five years in Egypt. When he got back, I'm told he just sat and drank for six months, staring at the fire and refusing to talk. Today you'd call it post traumatic stress disorder, but back then there were no words for it. Soon after he had recovered, my parents experienced a tragedy. They had adopted a baby who settled down well and upon whom they doted. Six months later his mother appeared on the doorstep and asked for him back; she had just married a man who had lost his wife and four children in a car crash. My parents thought it was the only fair thing to do and handed the baby over, but both were shattered by the experience.
By the time I arrived on the scene, however, they were in much better shape. Dad was doing well at work and getting on better with my mum. She was an inveterate charity worker-always off doing something that involved wearing a hat: Mothers' Union, Townswomen's Guild, or going to church. I suppose we were your everyday emerging middle class family, the kind of people who appeared in those old black and white educational films, vacationed on the South Coast, and went to the Festival of Britain in home knit jumpers. We lived in a small, semidetached house in a road with hundreds of similar houses. Ours was smarter than the ones on the other side of the street because you could only just see the electric flash of the tube lines from our side, but they were all much of a muchness, and there wasn't much of it I liked.
When I was two and a half or so, we went to the orphanage again and, according to family legend, I picked out a sister. Margaret lives in England and leads a much more respectable life than her brother. We don't know why my parents adopted. Perhaps there was some physical problem, or they just didn't have enough sex. I certainly never saw them at it, but this was the 1940s and 1950s: sex was not something one discussed with one's parents! Ours was quite a strict and repressed household, and our parents may have quarreled, but they loved us and the good far outweighed the bad.
Back then, the end of the Piccadilly Line was also the beginning of the countryside. I used to go for long walks with our dogs-Trudi and Judy-in the fields that began just a few hundred yards from our house. I'd play in the woods and climb trees with my friend, Alex Duncan, who was the local vicar's son. We had an air gun and we'd go up to the top of his house and shoot at women's bottoms as they tottered by. Inevitably we were caught. I've got one of those faces that has difficulty concealing the truth: I worked that out at an early age and have always behaved better than I would have wished because I'm aware of the problem. I hate to think what I'd have gotten up to with a more innocent face.
One of my greatest loves was scouting. Scouting does not have a good image these days-all pedophiles and sandals-but in the fifties it was a great way to escape and learn about the outdoors. By the time I finished school I had more merit badges than Idi Amin would have medals. I loved scouting and I kept on doing it right up until I left secondary school. We always had excellent scoutmasters, and that freedom of the outdoors was wonderful after the tight discipline that prevailed at home. All that practical stuff-knots, rope courses, and the like-was fun at the time and has proved extraordinarily useful. I tie knots every day of my life, and I knew most of them before I was ten. Although it's a dying pastime in England, scouting remains hugely influential in Africa. Like so many other things here, scouting is just as it used to be in England in the fifties. It's taken very seriously: ministers will happily be photographed in shorts and neckerchief. They're always having jamborees, and Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, even went so far as to die in Kenya. His grave was made a national monument by Kenya's Chief Scout when he later became president, Daniel arap Moi. One of my oldest and most respectable friends is Kenya's Chief Scout today.
When I wasn't scouting, I was at school, but about the only thing I recall about primary school is the rabbits. I don't know whether they were being bred for fur, for the table, or as pets, but I loved looking after them. I didn't go so far as to prepare them for release into the wild, but I do remember that even then I liked animals-and dares-in roughly equal measure. Indeed, in an unhappy combination of the two, I caught typhus after drinking from a puddle in the school playground and had to spend months in bed, staring at a naked bulb as the sweat poured off of me. It was during this time that I came across a book that inspired me to go to Africa and work with the animals that I had already begun to love.
Absurd as it may sound in this age of the Discovery and National Geographic channels, the book that stirred me was Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes-one of the most inaccurate books ever been written about the "Dark Continent." We only had a small bookshelf at home, and it was full of condensed books and books about war in the desert, containing black and white pictures of men with their hands in the air. But hidden away at the back of the shelf was a paperback copy of Tarzan with a color cover. I read it over and over again. Those were the days of Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta down at the movie theater, but it was actually the book that inspired me rather than the film, although I always had a liking for Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane.
Tarzan fascinated me and inspired a lifelong love of Africa, its people, and its wildlife, and that love endures to this day, despite having eaten Africa's dirt, been shot at by its inhabitants, and gnawed upon by its creatures. I still find it hard to define what I love so much about this place-the freedom, the challenge, or the responsibility-but I know I love it with an almost painful intensity, and I hate spending too long away from it. When I first read Tarzan, going to Africa became an imperative. And I also wanted desperately to be able to communicate with animals as my hero did. Edgar Rice Burroughs never set foot in Africa (in fact, William S. Burroughs has probably been a more reliable guide to me), and his descriptions bear no relation to what it actually looks like, or what it's like to live here, yet it was he who inspired my earliest years.
The first school I remember properly was Enfield Grammar, a couple of miles from home by bus. I must have driven my parents crazy when I was there. I was reasonably quick witted, but I did no work whatsoever. What I really concentrated on was stealing. I'm told that I was personally responsible for the installation of shoplifting mirrors in the local Woolworth's because we were always down there pocketing stuff when we should have been at school. It wasn't because we wanted the things we stole. It was the buzz and excitement that we yearned for-Enfield was achingly dull-Cockfosters with more dirt, black and white to my Technicolor imagination. At first my petty larceny was pretty harmless, but it grew in daring, fed by my constant urge for excitement and my unwillingness to turn down a dare. Reform school and prison were becoming ever more likely.
It was at about this time that my life began to change. My father worked hard at the bank and he was able to buy our first car-a Vauxhall 10 that I loved and whose engine I used to play with when I was not out in the fields with the dogs. He washed it religiously on the weekends, and it always sparkled like new. Having a car in Britain in those days was a big deal, and that consciousness of their worth has remained with me all my life. The trust that George and I set up has loads of vehicles now, and I keep them on the road far longer than I should because of some inbuilt sense of thrift. Every vehicle we've ever had in Tanzania is still in use, an absurd source of pride until I was told how much it was costing us.
Rationing in Britain didn't stop until 1954, when I was nine, and life wasn't easy even then. Nonetheless, Dad's hard work at the bank paid off when he was offered the managership of a new branch. We moved to nearby, but much more prosperous, Southgate. Dad joined the Rotary Club-an event that would set me off on a completely new path. Instead of going to a reformatory, I was packed off to Mill Hill, a smart boarding school on the outskirts of North London. They had an assisted tuition scheme through which the school and the Middlesex County Council helped pay the tuitions of a few boys each year. A Rotary Club member had tipped him off about the scheme. I don't know why they took me, but I'm so lucky they did. Almost all of my trustees in the UK are Old MillHillians, including my oldest school friend, Bob Marshall Andrews, who was one of our founders and is now chairman of the George Adamson Trust.
Excerpted from Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn. Copyright © 2011 by Tony Fitzjohn. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.