One Man and his Zoo

Chloe Dewe Mathews

The real story behind the film 'We bought a Zoo': Benjamin Mee, a freelance writer who bought a failing zoo in the countryside in southwestern England for 1.1 million pounds and managed to successfully relaunch it as Dartmoor Zoo.~~Benjamin Mee is not your average zoo keeper and Dartmoor Zoo in Devon, UK, is not your average zoo. ~~Mee started out as a columnist for the Guardian newspaper. His wife Katherine had been an art director for a London-based magazine and they were living a comfortable middle class life with their children Milo and Ella in the South of France when Katherine was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004. ~~Soon after, Mee's father died and within a few months Mee had convinced his mother to sell the family home outside London, had brought his wife around to the idea of selling their converted barn in France and was looking at sinking the money into a 12-bedroom house set in the middle of a delapidated zoo on the edge of Dartmoor.

Not dissuaded by initially having his offer rejected on the 1.2 million pound property and having to negotiate with his siblings on the fairest way to invest the proceeds of the sale of the family home, Mee finally succeeded in buying the house and zoo in late 2006. By this time, however, the local council had withdrawn the zoo's license, citing unsafe walkways and faulty equipment. ~~Over the coming year, Mee had to deal with one blow after another - from the death of his wife in early 2007 to constant setbacks in his quest to secure 500,000 pounds needed to renovate the zoo's facilities. Finally, in July 2007, the Zoo was reopened to the public as the Dartmoor Zoological Park, or just Dartmoor Zoo.~~This was by no means the end of Benjamin Mee's travails. He now needed 60,000 visitors a year to break even and the weekly costs - for staff, feed, upkeep and utilities - meant that the zoo's future was hanging on a knife's edge from the day it reopened. ~~But a lucky break has now brought the humble Dartmoor Zoo very much to public attention. In 2007, the BBC had taken an interest in Mee's project and produced a 4 part TV documentary called "Ben's Zoo". Mee's own account of the zoo buying adventure was published as a book in 2008 with the title "We bought a Zoo". ~~By a stroke of luck, the book was subsequently picked up by 20th Century Fox which bought the film rights and proceeded to get Cameron Crowe to direct a feature film retelling Mee's story in a Californian setting with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johanssen in the lead roles. The film was released in the UK in March 2012. ~




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