It was when the jaguar escaped that it hit Benjamin Mee exactly how much was at stake. The self-styled zookeeper and father of Milo, 11 and Ella, 9 whose story has inspired the film We Bought A Zoo, had only four days previously moved into a dilapidated zoo, the realities of which were becoming all too clear. “A junior keeper who we didn’t know made a mistake cleaning out the jaguar”, he recalls, “and the jag had been waiting eight years for someone to make that mistake. He pushed through the door and went straight into the tiger enclosure and decided pick a fight with the them, which is not good, but it’s not as bad as him killing some people. So that was a very exciting fourth day!” he smiles. “It showed me that people can die here if you make a mistake, and it’s my fault if they do. I don’t think my adrenaline level has ever really recovered from that realisation”.
Former journalist Mee had been living in France with his wife Katherine and two young children, renovating barns and writing a book about animals when the intriguing opportunity to buy a run-down animal park in Dartmoor arose. “We were actually looking for somewhere for my mother to live, maybe with my sister and her six children when we came across the house”, he says. “We passed the details around and thought 'great house, but it comes with 250 exotic animals in the garden, who in their right minds would take that on?' And then we thought, actually, maybe we would.
The Mee family visited the site “Just to rule it out”, which turned out to be their fortuitous folly. “There were millions of things wrong with it", says Benjamin, "the mistake we made was looking into the eyes of the animals and knowing that they were probably going to be destroyed if we didn’t buy it. The next people in line were going to turn it into a nursing home, so there was nowhere for the animals to go.” Milo, who was five years old at the time has only hazy memories of this significant moment. “We arrived very late at night, it was completely black. I remember a hedge, a car and being on someone’s shoulders. When I saw the house, my first thought was that maybe the queen lived in there, it was very big and grand”, he recalls. “And then I think I fell asleep”.
For Benjamin, his family were a major factor in his decision to take on the project. “I knew my wife was terminally ill, and she was always the sensible one in the relationship, if I came up with a crazy plan she would shoot down nine out of ten of the ideas, quite rightly, and she was very good at that. So I knew if I could get anything past her, it had merit”. Still, it was not a decision Benjamin or Katherine took lightly, “In a couple of weeks I persuaded her that even though it would be very hard, it would be terrific for the children. People say it was huge risk and it was, but it was a very considered thing. We went around every tourist attraction in the area asking if they thought it could work and every single one of them told us to buy it. A surveyor who came to do an assessment and by the end of the day he was gripping my shoulders and saying 'you’ve got to do it!'".
Sadly Katherine lost her battle with a brain tumour in 2007, but the Mee family were determined to make the Zoo a success and the children have developed strong bonds with the extended family of animals that they live amongst. “From a parenting point of view, I’m actually extremely lucky” explains Benjamin. “I work from home with 20 members of staff and 50 volunteers, most of whom my children have known for years. I have always thought this would be a great place to grow up, I was very worried at first as running a zoo is like a cross between farming and construction, and the animals that you are farming are killers as well, so when they were five years old and they were out of my sight for a minute, I'd think ‘have they jumped in with the bears?’. But the benefits for them are greater than the risk, the people here are friends and mentors to them, they are getting amazing experience and when they have ideas, everyone stops and listens.”
In 2008 Benjamin’s memoir of the experience, also titled We Bought A Zoo was published to great acclaim and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. The resulting film, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson is a heart-warming watch, sticking closely to the Mees' real experiences with just a frosting of Hollywood embellishment thrown in to keep things ticking along. As Ella sums up “It’s the same, just an upgraded version”.
Thanks to the unrelenting determination and hard work of the family and zoo staff, Dartmoor Zoo re-opened in July 2007, with improved facilities both for visitors and the animals who reside there. The zoo park itself has a friendly, non-corporate atmosphere and a real charm about it, not least because of the obvious passion for animals and their conservation amongst the staff and Mee family. And although they don’t like to pick favourites as such, Ella will admit a soft spot for the “nice furry animals like gerbils” while Milo has a great affection for one of the zoo’s biggest draws, an enormous Siberian tiger named Vlad. “He’s got a nice attitude, you can tell if he was a human he would be a nice one” he muses, while Benjamin adds with a jokey smile “he’s a bit like Matt Damon, actually. Very handsome, with a good head of hair!”.
We Bought a Zoo is available on Blu-ray Triple Play and DVD on 16thJuly, from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Find out more about Dartmoor Zoo
Read Junior's review of We Bought A Zoo