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Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Joy Adamson's book "Born Free," a story that changed the way people think about wildlife. The dramatic telling of Joy and George Adamson becoming surrogate parents to orphaned lion cub Elsa, and her eventual release back into the wild, sold millions of copies. The successful film based on the book won two Academy Awards. Virginia McKenna and her husband, Bill Travers, portrayed the Adamsons in the 1966 film, and McKenna received a Golden Globe nomination.

In "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story" (premiering Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011, at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on PBS — check local listings), THIRTEEN'S "Nature" goes behind the scenes of "Born Free" to examine the landmark story. The documentary takes viewers through challenges in making "Born Free" and the real-life drama of the Adamsons as pioneering conservationists. "Nature" revisited the people featured in the movie, including McKenna. Illuminated by George Adamson's journal entries, archival home movies and conversations with the Adamsons' close confidants, the film reveals shifting attitudes about conservation and their impact on lions in Africa.

Watch the full show. See more Nature.

Why McKenna is part of this "Nature" program.

"I became involved because I was in the film and knew the Adamsons," she said. "Also, some of my late husband's documentary footage is used — clips from 'The Lions are Free' and 'Christian the Lion.' I felt very privileged to be invited to be a part of this project. Our lives were completely changed by the experience of making 'Born Free.' In 1984, we started our animal welfare charity Zoo Check, renamed The Born Free Foundation in 1991. Our son Will is CEO of the Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA. The story does not end."

"Born Free" was one of the earliest representations on film of animals as individuals. Behind its romanticized depiction of Elsa and the Adamsons is the compelling story of the daring and controversial life two lovers of wildlife chose to live. But it is also a celebration of how a simple act of kindness taught us all how to see animals in a new way.

"This is an insider's look at the world's first environmental icon," said Fred Kaufman, executive producer of "Nature." "There's no question that Elsa became an ambassador of wildlife preservation because of the Adamsons and 'Born Free.' Looking at Elsa's legacy, we're able to see wildlife protection then and now and how one animal made a world of difference."

Today, McKenna spends most of her time still volunteering at the Born Free Foundation, working to encourage a greater understanding for wild animals. She is also involved with the rescue of individual animals from intolerable captive conditions and their re-homing to Born Free-sponsored rescue centers in Africa and India.

"Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story" is a production of Brian Leith Productions, THIRTEEN and BBC in association with WNET.ORG. Nature is a production of THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG for PBS. Fred Kaufman is executive producer. William Grant is executive-in-charge.