Virginia McKenna said her dignity “really belongs” to activists who fight to “end the suffering of wild animals and keep wild animals free”.
The 91-year-old actress, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to wildlife conservation and wildlife welfare.
It conducts charity campaigns to free animals from captivity and promotes 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, along with her husband Bill Travers and their son Will, became a wildlife activist after McKenna and Travers appeared in the 1966 film Born Free, set in Kenya.
McKenna said of her lady: “This award may be in my name, but I feel it really belongs to everyone who is trying to end the suffering of wild animals and keep wildlife in the wild.
“Bill and I shared a belief in the power of one. One animal that needs rescuing; one species that needs protection; one human community that needs support; one ecosystem that needs protection.
“And the power that lies within each of us every day to do something about it.”
Speaking to PA news agency along with her son Will, who is president of the foundation, McKenna said she was “speechless” when she discovered she was about to become a lady.
“I just didn’t know what to say because things like that are never expected,” she added.
“The awards I have received in my life have been amazing. But really, it’s because of the people I’ve worked with, our charity, and the animals I’ve met.
“You don’t expect gifts and gifts for doing what you love, and I have this incredible honor.
“I feel like that’s the word – I’m honored to get it because I feel it doesn’t apply to me. It’s about everyone who, like me, deeply cares about the problems we’re trying to fight. That’s what it really comes down to.”
McKenna said her husband, who died in 1994, would have hugged her tight if he were still alive.
She added: “Without him, we would never be where we are now, and this incredible situation would never have come about. So it’s part of it. Absolutely right, and deeply.”
Will Travers added to PA: “As Mom mentioned, this is also a recognition of the amazing work the Born Free team has done over the years.
“People who have come and gone continue to work with us, whether in Kenya, Ethiopia, the US, South Africa, the UK, Sri Lanka and even Australia.
“We have an amazing team that has achieved a tremendous amount with relatively little investment.
“This is the springboard for the next phase of Born Free and all organizations that share our values and share our principles.
“So I am charged that my mother – my beloved mother – has been given this extraordinary 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 people what is and is not right.
The actress added, “We just have to understand them and they understand us too.”
McKenna, Will Travers and Bill Travers founded an organization called Zoo Check in 1984 to end the exploitation of wild animals in zoos and circuses, and later in 1991 the Born Free Foundation.
Born June 7, 1931 in London, she studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama and at the Dundee Repertory Company. In 1952, she made her film debut with The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
McKenna won the Bafta Award for Best Actress for her role in A Town Like Alice in 1956, and was again nominated for Best Actress three years later in Carve Her Name With Pride.
She became a key 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 several animal-oriented films, including 1969’s An Elephant Called Slowly.
Her stage performances have been notable, including winning an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a British Musical for her role in The King And I in 1979 opposite Yul Brynner, and playing Queen Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the 1980s.
McKenna also made fleeting appearances in Sliding Doors, playing John’s mother Hannah in 1998, and most recently in Wings in 2020 opposite Miriam Margolyes.
She was named 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 2017 Animal Hero Awards.
She was also responsible for helping to create and furnish the Gavin Maxwell Museum on the Scottish island of Eilean Ban, the last home of the author and naturalist, best known for his book A Ring of Bright Water.
Mckenna continues to work on biodiversity and animal welfare, and helps develop alternatives to trophy hunting.