Adamson was born to Victor and Traute Gessner in Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary (now Opava, Czech Republic), the second of three daughters. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and she went to live with her grandmother. In her autobiography The Searching Spirit, Adamson wrote about her grandmother, saying, "It is to her I owe anything that may be good in me". As a young adult, Adamson considered careers as a concert pianist, and in medicine.
Joy Adamson is best known for her conservation efforts associated with Elsa the Lioness. In 1956, Joy's third husband, George Adamson, in the course of his job as game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, shot and killed a lioness as she charged him and another warden. George later realized the lioness was just protecting her cubs, which were found nearby in a rocky crevice. Taking them home, Joy and George found it difficult to care for the all the cubs' needs. The two largest cubs, named "Big One" and "Lustica", were passed on to be cared for by a zoo in Rotterdam, and the smallest, "Elsa", was raised by the couple.
After some time living together, the Adamsons decided to set Elsa free rather than send her to a zoo, and spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own. They were in the end successful, and Elsa became the first lioness successfully released back into the wild, the first to have contact after release, and the first known released lion to have a litter of cubs. The Adamsons kept their distance from the cubs, getting close enough only to photograph them.
In January 1961, Elsa died from disease resulting from a tick bite. Her three young cubs became a nuisance, killing the livestock of local farmers. The Adamsons, who feared the farmers might kill the cubs, were able to eventually capture them and transport them to neighboring Tanganyika Territory, where they were promised a home at Serengeti National Park. In The Story of Elsa, a compilation of the books about Elsa, Joy Adamson wrote: "My heart was with them wherever they were. But it was also with these two lions here in front of us; and as I watched this beautiful pair, I realized how all the characteristics of our cubs were inherent in them. Indeed, in every lion I saw during our searches I recognized the intrinsic nature of Elsa, Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa, the spirit of all the magnificent lions in Africa".
Using her own notes and George's journals, Joy wrote Born Free to tell the lion's tale. She submitted it to a number of publishers before it was bought by Harvill Press, part of HarperCollins. Published in 1960, it became a bestseller, spending 13 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and nearly a year on the chart overall. The success of the book was due to both the story of Elsa and the dozens of photographs of her. Readers had pictures of many of the events of Elsa's life leading up to her release. Subsequent books were also heavily illustrated. Born Free received largely favorable reviews from critics. Adamson worked closely with publishers to promote the book, which contributed to the Adamsons' new-found international celebrity.
She spent the rest of her life raising money for wildlife, thanks to the popularity of Born Free. The book was followed by Living Free, which is about Elsa as a mother to her cubs, and Forever Free, which tells of the release of the cubs Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa. Adamson shared book proceeds with various conservation projects.
Joy Adamson appeared in "The Bargain" and "Death Walks by Night", two second-season episodes of the British television crime drama The Vise, broadcast in 1955.
While television specials kept the Adamsons' cause in the spotlight, Adamson spent her last 10 years travelling the world, giving speeches about the perils faced by wildlife in Africa. A book of her paintings, Joy Adamson's Africa, was published in 1972. She rehabilitated a cheetah and an African leopard. Pippa the cheetah was raised as a pet and given to Adamson at the age of seven months in hopes that she could also be released. Pippa had four litters before her death. Adamson wrote The Spotted Sphinx and Pippa's Challenge about Pippa and her cheetah family. Later, Adamson reached her goal of many years, when she obtained an African leopard cub. Penny was eight weeks old when a ranger acquaintance of George Adamson found her in 1976. Penny had a litter of two cubs before the publication of Queen of Shaba, Joy Adamson's posthumous and final book. For many years, she was a resident panelist on the hugely popular and long-running BBC radio programme Twenty Questions.
During her lifetime, she created more than 500 paintings and line drawings. Her work included the people of Kenya, botanical and animal paintings, and studies of Elsa.
During Elsa's lifetime, Joy and George Adamson needed each other to educate her, but after she died and her cubs were taken in by the park, their interests went in separate directions, as did their lives. While neither divorced nor legally separated, their conflicting interests (George wanted to continue to work with lions and she with cheetahs) made it necessary for them to live apart (though they sometimes spoke of living together again, it never happened). Every year, they got together for Christmas, and they remained on good terms.
Joy Adamson married three times in the span of ten years. Her first marriage was to Viktor von Klarwill (aka Ziebel; 1902-1985), who sent her to Africa to find a safe place for them to live out World War II. Later, she met and married the botanist Peter Bally, who gave her the nickname "Joy". She met her third husband, senior wildlife warden George Adamson, while on safari in the early 1940s. They made their home together in Kenya.
On 3 January 1980, in Shaba National Reserve in Kenya, Joy Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Peter Morson (whose name has sometimes been reported as Pieter Mawson). He mistakenly assumed she had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media. She was several weeks shy of her 70th birthday.
The police investigation found Adamson's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded she had been murdered. Paul Nakware Ekai, a discharged labourer formerly employed by Adamson, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. He escaped capital punishment because the judge ruled he might have been a minor when the crime was committed.
George Adamson was murdered nine years later in 1989, near his camp in Kora National Park, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers. He is credited with saving the tourist's life.
In addition to Joy's books about big cats, a book of her artwork was published as an autobiography entitled The Searching Spirit. George Adamson's second autobiography, My Pride and Joy, was published in 1986.Born Free
Elsa & Her Cubs - 25 minutes; Benchmark Films Copyright MCMLXXI by Elsa Wild Animal Appeal and Benchmark Films, Inc.
Joy Adamson - About the Adamsons - Producer-Benchmark Films, Inc.
Joy Adamson's Africa (1977) - 86 minutes
The Joy Adamson Story (1980) - Programme featuring interviews with Joy Adamson about her life and work in Austria and in Africa, and her famous lioness Elsa. Director: Dick Thomsett Production Company: BBC