Six years ago British journalist Benjamin Mee was living in the countryside of France with his wife, Katherine and two children, Milo and Ella. That was until he stumbled upon a broken-down zoo and a motley crew of wild animals who were in desperate need of a saviour.
“We weren’t expecting to buy a zoo,” he says, “In fact we weren’t in the market for it at all.”
His recently widowed mother was in need of a new home and it wasn’t until the search led him to the run-down Dartmoor Zoo in south-west England that he began to imagine a different kind of life for his young family.
“We made the mistake of going to see it and of course we realised that if we didn’t buy it, it was going to close and most of the animals were going to be destroyed. So that kind of galvanised us completely and I found I spent the next six months on the phone from France negotiating with this very cranky guy and trying to get all the finances and regulations approved,” says Mee.
With no zoological experience and no support from within the industry it took a lot of persistence and failed attempts to purchase the zoo before Mee finally managed to convince the cantankerous owner that he was the right man for the job.
We were just one small part in the bigger cycle of life and in that sense, if something like that was going to happen to you it couldn’t have happened at an easier place to see the reason for mending.
After successfully purchasing the zoo the family, including Mee’s mother, brother and sister, threw themselves into mending it, none more so than Benjamin himself. But shortly after moving in to their strange new home his wife, who was in remission from cancer, was told her brain tumour had returned.
Tragically, three months before the zoo was due to reopen, Benjamin’s wife lost her battle with cancer. While Mee was overwhelmed with grief he is adamant that through it all he never second guessed his decision to take on the zoo.
“There was never a point when I regretted it. I never thought that we should stop. Even in those darkest moments when Katherine was ill and when she died. It [the zoo] was already bigger than any of us,” he says resolutely.
What started out as a mission to save the lives of hundreds of animals ended up being the very thing that helped hold Mee and his family together when everything else seemed to be falling apart.
“You are obviously crippled by the grief of something like that, for a little while I literally couldn’t get off the sofa. But you look out the window and you can see people coming to work, people mending fences, people feeding animals and it just kind of put our suffering into perspective,” he says thinking back. “We were just one small part in the bigger cycle of life and in that sense, if something like that was going to happen to you it couldn’t have happened at an easier place to see the reason for mending.”
Being a journalist put Mee in the unique position of being able to share his story with the world to help raise support for the Dartmoor Zoo and when his memoir, We Bought A Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family and The 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Life, was published the uniqueness of their story captured Hollywood’s attention.
“I never imagined it would become as big as it has,” says Mee. “When they bought the rights, they told me, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, these things usually don’t get made’. But I knew it had people on the inside who wanted it to happen.”
With Matt Damon and director Cameron Crowe on board, the film We Bought a Zoo became a reality but the process wasn’t at all like what Mee imagined.
“I was kind of expecting him [Matt Damon] to come over and start copying my mannerisms,” he says. “But there was a TV series about the place called Ben’s Zoo and the book and they worked out how to do it from there.”
Mee is at times amazed by just how accurately Damon and Crowe portrayed him.
“They did an amazing job, especially in the fictional scenes because they didn’t happen but I would have absolutely done those things. Which is strange, how did they know I would do that?”
While the movie is at times loosely based on the reality, including Scarlett Johansson’s fictional character and the turbulent relationship between Damon’s character and his son in dealing with their grief, the power of the story remains the same.
But beyond the glamour of having their own Hollywood movie remained the reality of daily financial pressure and the ongoing trials of keeping the Dartmoor Zoo running. After six years of hard work Mee concedes that he has never been able to freely enjoy the experience of running his own zoo.
“There are times when I enjoy it but even then it is always bittersweet because I am thinking this is costing this much, this needs doing, and everyone is smiling and the tigers are all happy and everyone is safe – for that afternoon! But tomorrow the taxman is coming. I know it sounds harsh, loads of other people enjoy it, customers and the people who work there, I worry about it all the time. It keeps me up at night.”
In spite of all this he isn’t ready to give up on his adventure just yet. When asked why he thinks his story has had such an impact Mee is momentarily stumped.
“It is hard to say. I mean we bought a zoo. It’s unusual I suppose, there aren’t many people who can say that they did that.”
However he recognises the power of the story runs deeper than that.
“I suppose, from my point of view it is overcoming naysayers, negative people who say ‘you can’t do that’, and there were millions of them, to do something positive. It is also about a family pulling together to rebuild a broken zoo after it’s suffering a tragedy and I think people find that uplifting. That out of a terrible situation we were able to do something positive that was against the odds and the more I talk about it the more I think, yeah, that is a great story,” he says, laughing.
We would have to agree.
We Bought a Zoo is available now on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (RRP $34.95).