Adamson: life with a leopard; Queen of Shaba: The Story of an African Leopard, by Joy Adamson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $14.95.

Journalist and playwright Frederic Hunter, who lived in Africa for four years , was acquainted with Joy Adamson.

Few books change the way people think. "Born Free," however, profoundly altered the way millions of readers -- and later film and television audiences -- regarded wild animals and their place in a world increasingly dominated by man. The late Joy Anderson, its author, became a world personality.

"Born Free," which Mrs. Adamson published in 1960, related the story of one of the world's most unusual friendships, that between a woman and a lion, Elsa. The book and its two sequels told about Elsa's rehabilitation to the wild, a process climaxed by her bearing of cubs.

In the late 1960s Mrs. Adamson adopted a cheetah cub, Pippa, rehabilitated her, and watched over the growth of her cubs. She recorded these activities in two books.

Having succeeded with lions and cheetahs, Mrs. Adamson made it her goal to work with the third great species of African cats, the leopards. She had great difficulty finding a cub.

When my family and I last visited her at Elsamere, her home overlooking lake Naivsha, a "boma" of wood poles and wire fencing had been built on the front lawn. When I exclaimed, "Are you getting a leopard!" Mrs. Adamson dissolved into tears. She had only recently lost Taga II, a leopard cub, and saw little prospect of acquiring another.

That was mid-1973. Finally in late 1976 Mrs. Adamson heard of an orphaned leopard cub being kept by a ranger at Nakuru Park. The cub, a female, was still young enough for Mrs. Adamson to become permanently imprinted on the animal -- that is, in the author's word, to "be given all the trust and affection that it would normally share only with its natural family."

She acquired the cub, which she called Penny, and moved it and her household to a tented camp in Shaba Park. There she devoted her last three years to achieving her longtime goal: to raise and rehabilitate a female leopard.

"Queen of Shaba" is Mrs. Adamson's account of how this was done. Written in her straightforward prose, it charts progress in solving two basic rehabilitation problems.These are teaching the animal first to hunt and survive in its natural habitat, and, second, to produce young.

Since Adamson fans have moved across this territory with Elsa the lion and Pippa the cheetah, Penny's journey will be familiar to them, a variation on a theme. Unfortunately, as a more private, uncommunicative and feline animal than the devotedly dog-like Elsa, Penny is sometimes a less-than-engaging companion through the book's 173 pages.

Penny distinctly dislikes being photographed, for example, and the illustrations here are less charming and open than those in other Adamson books. A capricious animal, Penny is also a biter. Mrs. Adamson is forever bandaging an arm after being nipped by the leopard.

But one's sympathies are not always with the bitten. Mrs. Adamson frequently seems a busybody foster-mother, hovering too close, overly curious about Penny's mating. One suspects, too, that she may have been hard to work for. She seemed a quirky and often difficult woman, still living in colonial Africa, (facts which may have contributed to her mysterious murder by one of her African staff shortly after completing the manuscript for this book).

In addition to being bitten, Mrs. Adamson twice breaks her legs, has problems with theft, and barely survives a refrigerator explosion which burns down her camp. Now and then a reader does wonder why a woman of mature years persists in the face of such hardships.

However, there are moments of deep afffection between Mrs. Adamson and the leopard. At one point, for instance, Penny insists tht the author come and see her newborn cubs. These moments probably answer questions about Mrs. Adamson's motivations.

Moreover, Joy Adamson was obviously determined to show that with love and patience all species of the great African cats can be rehabilitated to the wild. There is no question but what she has done that. In this book she offers her proof.

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