Virginia McKenna said her bridesmaid “really belongs” with activists who are fighting to “end the suffering of wild animals and keep wildlife in the wild.”
The 91-year-old actress, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to wildlife conservation and wild animal welfare, in the New Year Honours.
His charitable campaigns for animals to remain free from captivity and promote the protection of endangered species and natural habitats.
As one of the most popular and acclaimed British film actresses of the 1950s and 1960s, McKenna became a wildlife campaigner alongside her husband Bill Travers and their son Will, after McKenna and Travers starred in the film Born Free from 1966, set in Kenya.
McKenna said of her bridesmaid, “This award may be in my name, but I feel it truly belongs to all who are striving to end the suffering of wild animals and keep wildlife in the wild.
“Bill and I shared a belief in the power of one. An animal that needs to be rescued; a species that needs protection; a human community that needs support; an ecosystem that needs conservation.
“And the power that lies within each of us every day to do something about it.”
Speaking to the PA news agency with her son Will, who is president of the foundation, McKenna said she was “shocked” to learn she was going to be a lady.
“I just didn’t know what to say because you never expect stuff like that,” she added.
“The rewards I’ve had in my life have been so amazing. But it’s actually thanks to the people I’ve worked with, our charity and the animals I’ve known.
“You don’t expect presents and gifts for doing what you love to do, and I have this tremendous honor.
“That’s the word, I think – I’m honored to receive it because I feel like it’s not about me. It’s about everyone who, like me, cares deeply about the problems we try to wrestle with. That’s really what it boils down to.
McKenna said her husband, who died in 1994, would have given her a “big hug” if he were still alive.
He added: “Without him we could never have been where we are now and this incredible situation would never have happened. So he’s part of it. Absolutely right, and profoundly so.
Will Travers added to PA: “As mum mentioned, this is also recognition of the incredible work of the Born Free team, over all these years.
“People who have come and gone, people who still work with us, be it Kenya, Ethiopia, the US, South Africa, the UK, Sri Lanka and even Australia.
“We have an incredible team that has achieved a lot with relatively little.
“This is the stepping stone to the next phase of Born Free and all organizations that share our values and share our principles.
“So I’m thrilled that my mom — my dear mom — has been given this amazing honor.”
McKenna previously told PA in 2021 that her Golden Globe-nominated role as Joy Adamson, and Travers as environmentalist George Adamson, was a “life-changing experience.”
While filming in Africa, she said she and Travers learned to read the “body language” and “signs” that lions use to tell humans what’s okay and what’s not.
The actress added, “We just have to understand them, and so do they.”
McKenna, Will Travers and Bill Travers founded an organization called Zoo Check, which aimed to end the exploitation of wild animals in zoos and circuses, in 1984, and later, in 1991, the Born Free Foundation.
Born on 7 June 1931 in London, she trained as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama and the Dundee Repertory Company and made her film debut in 1952 with The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
McKenna won a Best Actress Bafta for her performance in the film A Town Like Alice in 1956, and was nominated again for Best Actress three years later in Carve Her Name With Pride.
She became a major British export, with the international films The Wreck Of The Mary Deare in 1959 and Waterloo in 1970, and won awards including the BBC’s Best Actress award for Juliet in the television production of Romeo and Juliet in 1955
She and Travers also starred in The Lions Are Free in 1967, a documentary about lion cubs from Born Free, and in several animal-oriented films, including An Elephant Called Slowly in 1969.
Her stage performances have been significant and have included winning the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a British Musical for her performance in The King And I in 1979 opposite Yul Brynner and the role of Queen Gertrude in Kenneth’s Hamlet Branagh in the 80s.
McKenna also appeared in passing in Sliding Doors, playing the mother of John Hannah, in 1998, and most recently in Wings in 2020 opposite Miriam Margolyes.
She was made an OBE in 2004 for her services to wildlife and the arts, received honorary doctorates from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Bedfordshire, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Animal Hero Awards in 2017.
She was also responsible for creating and furnishing the Gavin Maxwell Museum on the Scottish island of Eilean Ban, the final resting place of the author and naturalist, most famous for his book Ring Of Bright Water.
Mckenna continues to work on biodiversity and animal welfare and help develop alternatives to trophy hunting.