'Giraffe lady' sticks her neck out

October 31, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

In Baltimore and Nairobi, Betty Leslie-Melville is known by another name: giraffe lady.

And with good reason. For the last 20 years, she has dedicated her life to saving the endangered Rothschild Giraffe, a regal animal known for its immense size and snow-white legs.

Along the way, she founded an education center for African children, wrote 10 books, lectured in virtually every state, introduced Candice Bergen, Johnny Carson and other celebrities to Kenya, and became the subject of a TV movie.

Her efforts -- which have landed her in National Geographic" and on "Life styles of the Rich and Famous" -- will be recognized tonight when Ms. Leslie-Melville receives the Safari Planet Earth Award at a gala in New York. Walter Cronkite, a friend and supporter, will present the honor given by Global Communications for Conservation, a New York-based environmental group.

Days before the event, she settles into a wicker chair in her Roland Park condominium to explain how the former Betty Bruce, a one-time Hutzler's model and Dickeyville nursery schoolteacher, became such a force in Africa.

"I fell in love with the country," says Ms. Leslie-Melville, 67. "It's a fascinating place to live. . . . You go there and it's like you're in a Technicolor world. It's magic."

A mother of three and grandmother of five, she's blond and slim, dressed in a chic wool duster, sweater and pants. Most noticeable, though, is the oversized gold giraffe buckle around her waist.

Even here, she's surrounded by things that remind her of Africa. The walls are lined with photos of Ms. Leslie-Melville cavorting with animals in front of her 20-room stone mansion, known as Giraffe Manor. In her living room is a desk and tapestry chair that belonged to Karen Blixen, who, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, wrote "Out of Africa."

An accomplished speaker, Ms. Leslie-Melville is well versed in the art of storytelling. She deftly relates the drama, comedy and fairy tale that have been her life.

"I have one philosophy," she says. "You're only sorry for what you don't do, so try everything on for size and wear what fits."

Growing up near Forest Park, she'd always been intrigued by stories of Africa but had no intention of visiting until a close friend moved there and invited her over. It was 1958. She was married to her second husband, a banker named Dancy Bruce, and had three small children, all of whom stayed behind on that first trip.

When she returned two weeks later, she recalls her husband saying: " 'Well, I'm glad you got that out of your system. But I told him, 'It's just begun.' "

She was right.

Two years later, they packed their things and moved to Africa. Looking back on it now, she's incredulous that they survived, naively crossing the plains in an open jeep, a move that gets plenty of people killed.

Although they both loved their new home and opened a non-hunting safari business, the couple's marriage dissolved. At about that time, she met Jock Leslie-Melville, the grandson of a Scottish earl who had been raised in Africa. The two hit it off and were married in 1964. Several years later, when they bought the manor and founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, her real work began.

Wild giraffes often wandered through their front lawn from a national park nearby. the Leslie-Melvilles quickly became known as protectors of these animals.

"I'd wake up and they'd have their heads in the second-floor window looking for me," she says.

Conservationists began asking them to move young Rothschild giraffes to their property or to sanctuaries nearby. From there, they began a project to save these endangered animals; today the number has increased from 130 to more than 500.

Coupled with their love for giraffes was a desire to educate others about them. They built a center to introduce African children, many of whom live in cities, to the wonder of their natural surroundings. Last year, more than 40,000 children visited the center, met wild animals, and learned about conservation.

Between them, the Leslie-Melvilles wrote 10 books about Africa -- children's stories, historical novels and mysteries. When they weren't writing, lecturing or raising money for conservation causes, they took notables such as Marlon Brando, Dick Clark and Richard Chamberlain on safari.

In 1979, CBS made a TV movie of their lives, based loosely on their book, "Raising Daisy Rothschild."

"I hated the movie," she recalls now. "It was the worst experience of my life. The trainer killed two baby giraffes."

Her volunteer efforts brought her to the attention of Global Communications for Conservation.

"She pioneered conservation education in Kenya," says Laura Utley, founder of the group. "She's dedicated. She's got foresight, and she's enriched the lives of a lot of kids."

Along the way, Ms. Leslie-Melville also has known heartache. Perhaps most painful of all was her husband Jock's slow death from brain cancer. After a long struggle, he died in 1985.

Six and a half years ago, she remarried after meeting retired naval Vice Admiral George Peabody Steele on safari. They now return to Nairobi about four times a year to help her son, Rick Anderson and his wife, Bryony, run Giraffe Manor.

She has just returned from New York, where she spoke with her editor at Doubleday about several projects she's working on, including a children's book, a mystery and her autobiography.

In writing about her life, is there anything now she wishes she'd done differently?

"I couldn't possibly have any regrets," she says without hesitation. "Africa has broadened me tremendously. It's made my life a delightful education."

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