It is hard to believe that Joy Adamson will write no more of those majestic and fearful predators she called friend and companion. The intimate and moving portraits of her personal relationship with Elsa the lioness and Pippa the cheetah inspired a generation of readers who wanted and somehow needed to know that there was more to these elegant and powerful carnivores than the impersonal killing and frightening savagery all too frequently portrayed in legend.
On Jan. 3, 1980, Joy Adamson was slain near her bush camp by an itinerant camp helper following a dispute over wages. Ironically, her murderer doctored the scene of the crime to make it appear as if she had been surprised and mauled by a lion, a plausible enough explanation for one unaware of Adamson's unique understanding of the denizens of the African bush. Just 10 days prior to her death, Adamson had completed a manuscript for a book on the life of a leopard, the last of the "big three" African predators she had studied. The book is "Queen of Shaba," which along with her earler volumes "Born Free" (the first volume about Elsa) and "The Spotted Sphinx" (concerning Pippa) completes the "Adamson trilogy."
Adamson's studies are difficult to characterize. They are not zoolgical in the pure sense, nor are they psychological studies or manuals on wildlife management. They are a highly personalized blend of all with a large dose of sentiment and empathy thrown in. But make no mistake. Her studies required no less discipline and dedication than that expected of a trained field biologist. In fact, the extent to which she followed, protected, trained, observed and suffered the repeated maulings of her charges must have required more fortitude than all but the most determined field worker could have mustered. To many, though, she was no more than a talented amateur, not a scientist, whose journals made good reading. To others, her work was a fascinating and obsessive odyssey to demonstrate that one person indeed has the means at hand to share the life of our brother creatures and that the bond between man and animal can be experienced at a personal, almost peer, level.
"Queen of Shaba" is the story of Penny, an orphaned leopard raised by Adamson in a manner simialr to Elsa and Pippa, to live the proud life of a wild predator. Leopards have a reputation for ferocity and savagery that is exaggerated, and Adamson hoped that "by sharing the life of a leopardess young enough to become imprinted on me and by noting the behavior of her litters, I might be able to clear the species of its bad reputation." She also hoped to be able to collect information that would permit comparisons between the reproductive and ecological strategies of the leopard, cheetah and lion.
The Penny project proved to be more difficult than Adamson had anticipated, for although Penny was manageable enough as a small cub, the fickle, aloof and whimsical side of the wild leopard emerged as she grew older and larger. Adamson found that the leopard could not be trusted with the same assurance as Elsa or Pippa, that she was subject to sudden changes in mood. Seven times during the course of the study Adamson, already handicapped by an artificial hip and brittle bones, was mauled by Penny, sometimes seriously enough to require surgery. Adamson's other non-leopard induced illnesses and injuries, her encounters with deadly snakes, equally deadly poachers and natural disasters are chronicled and add testimony to the steely determination of Adamson's enterprise. Despite all, Penny was nurtured to adulthood through childhood diseases, traumatic encounters with baboons, lions and tourists. She successfully mated with a wild leopard and produced a litter of cubs which were to have been the subject of a sequel.
Adamson wrote as she lived -- in a simple, unembelished and unpretentious style. The book is taut and lean, with an economy of purpose and deed characteristic of the wild leopard itself. The author not only follows the life of the leopard, she becomes one with the animal in thought, mood and instinct, a patient spectator of bush life, prowling and always waiting, lurking in the background, ever stalking, protective and ready to rush to the aid of her friend.
For those who are followers of Adamson's adventures, "Queen of Shaba" will be a satisfying, if unfinished, portrait of the most challenging experiment of all. To those who have not yet partaken, I highly recommend it and Adamson's earlier companion volumes as an inseparable set to be read in sequence.