Betty Leslie-Melville, 78, founded conservation fund

September 24, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Betty Leslie-Melville, an unconventional conservationist who dedicated much of her life to protecting the once-imperiled Rothschild's giraffe, died yesterday of a type of dementia at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Roland Park resident was 78.

Known as the Giraffe Lady, she founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife USA after settling in Kenya nearly 40 years ago. She worked to save the endangered Rothschild's giraffe, one of three subspecies of the gangly, treetop-munching animal known for its immense size and snow-white legs.

"She was a very charismatic lady, and lots and lots of fun," said her son, Rick Anderson, who lives at Giraffe Manor, a Nairobi, Kenya, stone inn and wildlife sanctuary. "She charmed everybody.

"She was not a preservationist," her son said yesterday. "She was a conservationist. She started with educating children because she found those who lived in the cities of Kenya and the agricultural area had actually never seen wildlife. It is only the nomadic, pastoral people who are out with the wild animals."

She and her husband, Jock Leslie-Melville, established the Giraffe Center in Nairobi in 1983 and raised money in the U.S. for the effort. In the last year, it was visited by 57,000 schoolchildren and 73,000 general visitors.

The Rothschild's giraffe, whose numbers were once down to 120 and were sequestered on a ranch that was about to be developed, are now estimated at 300 and live on three private ranches and three national parks, all in Kenya.

Born Betty McDonnell in Baltimore and raised in Northwest Baltimore's Howard Park, she was a 1945 graduate of Forest Park High School. She attended the Johns Hopkins University and became a model for the old Hutzler's and Stewart's department stores, appeared in an American beer television commercial and ran the Uplands School, a nursery near Dickeyville, with her sister.

She once told a Sun reporter that she had always been intrigued by stories of Africa but had no intention of visiting until a close friend, Helen Harrison, moved there as a member of the White Sisters, a Roman Catholic religious order. She visited Africa with a friend, Bebe Frenkil, in 1958.

"I fell in love with the country," Mrs. Leslie-Melville said in a 1994 Sun interview. "It's a fascinating place to live. ... You go there, and it's like you're in a Technicolor world. It's magic."

She was then married to her second husband, banker Dancy Bruce, and had three small children. Two years later, the couple packed their things and moved to Kenya. Her husband ran a non-hunting safari business, but several years later their marriage dissolved.

About that time, she met Jock Leslie-Melville, the grandson of a Scottish earl who had been raised in Africa. The two were married in 1964. Several years later, they bought the stone manor house, which had been built in 1932 for a Kenyan engineer and heir to an English toffee fortune. Wild giraffes often wandered through their front lawn from a national park nearby.

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

Conservationists began asking them to move young Rothschild's giraffes to their property or to sanctuaries nearby. She founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife USA. Her husband founded its Kenyan counterpart, the umbrella organization that runs the center.

Between them, the Leslie-Melvilles wrote 10 books about Africa.

When they weren't writing, lecturing in this country or raising money for conservation causes, they hosted notables such as Ali McGraw, Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, Candice Bergen and Johnny Carson, on whose Tonight show she appeared.

"She has scampered across two continents like the heroine of a picaresque novel, leaving a glittering wake of crazy and glamorous stories," said a 1980 Evening Sun profile.

In 1979, CBS made a TV movie of the Leslie-Melvilles' lives, based loosely on their book, Raising Daisy Rothschild.

"I hated the movie," Mrs. Leslie-Melville recalled in 1994. "It was the worst experience of my life. The trainer killed two baby giraffes."

In 1984, her husband died of brain cancer and she turned the operation of Giraffe Manor over to her son, who continues to operate it with his wife, Bryony.

She then married retired Vice Adm. George Peabody Steele, whom she met on a safari. She retained the name Leslie-Melville for professional reasons.

She returned to Baltimore in the 1980s and visited Kenya several times a year.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to her husband and son, survivors include a daughter, Dancy Bruce Mills of Glen Arm; and five grandchildren. A son, McDonnell Marshall "Mac" Bruce, died in 2004. Her marriage to her first husband, Lloyd Anderson, ended in divorce.

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