|"When I think back ... of the serval cat and a baboon that I had as pets in my childhood days−and that eventually I had to house in large cages−it makes me sad. It makes me sadder still, however, and also very angry, when I think of the innumerable adult animals and birds deliberately caught and locked up for the so-called 'pleasure' and 'education' of thoughtless human beings. ... surely there is today so many first-class films ... that the cruelty of keeping wild creatures in zoos should no longer be tolerated."
|From L.S.B. Leakey, By the Evidence, Chapter 4.
Louis's parents, Harry (1868–1940) and Mary (May) Bazett Leakey (died 1948), were Church of England missionaries in British East Africa (now Kenya). Harry was the son of James Shirley Leakey (1824–1871), one of the eleven children of the portrait painter James Leakey. Harry Leakey was assigned to an established post of the Church Mission Society among the Kikuyu at Kabete, in the highlands north of Nairobi. The station was at that time a hut and two tents. Louis's earliest home had an earthen floor, a leaky thatched roof, rodents and insects, and no heating system except for charcoal braziers. The facilities slowly improved over time. The mission, a center of activity, set up a clinic in one of the tents, and later a girls' school. Harry was working on a translation of the Bible into the Gikuyu language. He had a distinguished career in the CMS, becoming canon of the station.
Louis had a younger brother, Douglas, and two older sisters, Gladys and Julia. Both sisters married missionaries: Gladys married Leonard Beecher, Anglican Bishop of Mombasa and then Archbishop of East Africa from 1960 to 1970; Julia married
Lawrence Barham, the second Bishop of Rwanda and Burundi from 1964 to 1966; their son Ken Barham was later the
Bishop of Cyangugu in Rwanda.
The Leakey household came to contain Miss Oakes (a governess), Miss Higgenbotham (another missionary), and Mariamu (a Kikuyu nurse). Louis grew up, played, and learned to hunt with the native kikuyus. He also learned to walk with the distinctive gait of the Kikuyu and speak their language fluently, as did his siblings. He was initiated into the Kikuyu ethnic group, an event of which he never spoke, as he was sworn to secrecy.
Louis requested and was given permission to build and move into a hut, Kikuyu style, at the end of the garden. It was home to his personal collection of natural objects, such as birds' eggs and skulls. All the children developed a keen interest in and appreciation of the pristine natural surroundings in which they found themselves. They raised baby animals, later turning them over to zoos. Louis read a gift book, Days Before History, by H. R. Hall (1907), a juvenile fictional work illustrating the prehistory of Britain. He began to collect tools and was further encouraged in this activity by a role model, Arthur Loveridge, first curator (1914) of the Natural History Museum in Nairobi, predecessor of the Coryndon Museum. This interest may have predisposed him toward a career in archaeology. His father was also a role model: Canon Leakey co-founded the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society.
Neither Harry nor May were of strong constitution. From 1904–1906 the entire family lived at May's mother's house in Reading, Berkshire, England, while Harry recovered from neurasthenia, and again in 1911–1913, while May recovered from general frailty and exhaustion. During the latter stay, Harry bought a house in Boscombe.