When a 400lb lion took a “fist-sized hole” out of Tony Fitzjohn’s neck in 1975, the Kenya-based conservationist worried his time was up, says The Times. “Am I dying?” he asked his boss, George Adamson. “I think you probably are,” came the reply, “but I’ll do my best.” Treated initially with just Savlon, whisky and Valium, Fitzjohn made a miraculous recovery. During his convalescence, he received a cheering letter from Adamson. “There is nothing for you to blame yourself for,” he wrote. “Getting chewed up by a lion is one of our occupational hazards.”
Fitzjohn, who died last week aged 76, was always a renegade. During his childhood, he recalled, he would take an air gun to his roof and “shoot at women’s bottoms as they tottered by”. He was sacked from his first job after school – at a dairy company – for having too much fun. “All the clichés you hear about milkmen and housewives were true,” he said. He initially emigrated to South Africa, but moved to Kenya after an affair with a married woman ended with him being chased down the street by her revolver-toting husband.
Fitzjohn joined Adamson’s set-up, in what is now Kora National Park, in 1971. One of his tasks was rehabilitating Christian, the famous Harrods-bought lion whose owners would drive down the King’s Road with the big cat propped up in the backseat (pictured below). Word of Fitzjohn’s antics often preceded him. He once met Roberto Canessa, who infamously resorted to cannibalism after a plane crash in the Andes. Fitzjohn recalled: “The first thing Roberto said to me was, ‘Tony, everyone I meet asks me what it is like to eat someone. Now finally I can ask you this – what is it like to be eaten?’”