The real family behind “We Bought A Zoo”

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On December 23, the movie “We Bought A Zoo,” starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, hits theaters. It’s the story of a father who, following his wife’s untimely death, moves his young family to the California countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo, Rosemoor Wildlife Park.

But did you know that the film is based on a real story?

The real Benjamin Mee was a reporter for the UK’s The Guardian. When his father died, his mother wanted to sell her home and move to something smaller. While searching through the normal real estate channels, they saw an offer for a 30-acre zoo for sale in Devon, England. Mee and his brother Duncan thought it was a wonderful idea, so along with their Mum went to check it out.

He writes in an article for The Guardian, published Saturday June 23, 2007:

“We made an appointment to view and were shown around with other prospective buyers – mainly leisure industry professionals. On the designated bidding day our offer was rejected on the basis that we had no real money to invest and no experience of running a zoo. Both fair points. We went back to our lives only slightly wistfully, thinking it had been an impossible dream all along.

“It wasn’t just the idea of the zoo that had captured our imaginations; it was the whole area. The park sat on the edge of Dartmoor, and all around were the lush woodland and beautiful beaches of South Hams. The two days we spent there stayed with me, until one day, almost a year later, I saw that the zoo was up for sale again. And this time all the animals would have to be shot if a buyer wasn’t found in the next few weeks.”

After dealing with bankers and lawyers and one family member who opposed the idea (and filed a lawsuit), on October 20, 2006, Mee, his 76-year-old mother,  his wife Katherine, their children, Milo, aged six, and Ella, four, and Mee’s brother Duncan moved into the 12 bedroom mansion. Once grand, it was now in desperate need of repair.

Surrounding their new home were their new neighbors, “five Siberian tigers, three African lions, nine wolves, three big brown European bears, two pumas, a lynx, four Asian short-clawed otters, two flamingos, quite a lot of owls and a Brazilian tapir called Ronnie. We also had vervet monkeys (who were fighting), several emu, some deer, a llama, a small reptile collection, including some large boa constrictors, and a tarantula.”

Escaped animals, permits, needed repairs, and no money to pay for it all kept the family busy right from the start. They managed to raise the funds to restore the zoo. Then tragedy struck.

When the family moved into the zoo, Mee’s wife Katherine had been in remission from a brain tumor found two years earlier. They knew it was possible it would come back, and just after Christmas 2006, they found out Katherine was dying.

She passed away in March of 2007, at the age of just 40.

Mee and his family continued with the project, and just months after Katherine’s death, the zoo opened for its first visitors. Formerly known as the Dartmoor Wildlife Park, the zoo boasts tigers, lions, jaguar, lynx and cheetah, bears, wolves, tapir, capybara, racoons, meerkats, monkeys, deer, owls, ostrich, lechwe, a fantastic collection of bugs and reptiles; an Education Centre; animal encounters; and even an opportunity to be “Big Cat Keeper For A Day”.

The layout of the zoo means the animal enclosures allow for up close and personal experiences in a natural woodland environment, with “plenty of open spaces for the kids to run free and visitors are very welcome to bring a picnic and simply enjoy the surroundings.”

Mee’s wrote about his experiences buying and living at the zoo in his 2008 b0ok, “We Bought A Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever.” The book is the basis for the movie, which moves the setting from England to California.

You can learn more about the Dartmoor Zoo on their website.

  • Susan Isele

    I just want you to know I think you all are the most beautiful people for saving those zoo animals. God bless.

  • Teresa Sanders

    I love the movie and I want to thank you for buying the zoo and saving the animals! A wonderful story of a family tragedy & how helping animals helped the family get through it. I am glad the zoo is still doing well.

  • Laura Wisbey

    Just saw the movie, was moving, emotional and cried @ the end!!
    Tears of joy
    I am so grateful for the family that turned this zoo around and saved thses beautiful creatures.

    • vannessa

      i cried like a baby and its awesome to see the people help them animals i want to be there myself!!!

    • vannessa

      i cried too i just think its amazing for people to help these animals i want to be there myself!!!

  • Shirley A. Richter

    Why do they make So Few of wonderful movies like this? The True stories are the Best! I Love to leave the threatre feeling Good, Inspired & Entertained! This movie brought back memories of the kind of movies I grew up with in the 40′s & 50′ . Thank You !

  • John M. Murphy

    I Just saw the movie and, THANK YOU Benjamin!!!!! we are all gods creatures and deserve a home and to be loved thank you for giving this to all of our “friends”

  • Lois A. Ernst

    We just saw the movie this evening. It was WONDERFUL! We hope to make it
    to England in the near future and visit the Rosemoor Wildlife Park.
    Thank you Mee family for all your hard work and perseverance.
    “We Bought A Zoo” is the feel good movie of the year! I recommend it HIGHLY!

  • Dana

    We loved the movie. There should be more uplifting movies like this. Who needs the cussing and nudity when you can be entertained and receive a great message? God bless the family that saved those animals and shared their story.

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    • Alex Murphy

      We bought a zoo is the best movie I have ever seen but It is so sad. But the music is so good Jonsi has the greatest music

  • Monica

    Benjamin, your tragic story turned triumph, demonstrated anything is possible with the love of family and friendly creatures. Thank you for a feel good, inspiring and well written movie. My son and I learned valuable lessons about life, love and will to go forward. Obstacles did not deter you. When I feel like giving up I will remember your amazing portrayal of your life through this movie. God bless you and your family. Thank you:)

    • Pamela Summers

      The movie did not do Justice to your real life story. Why was the story line changed so much? Your real life story of you, your wife, children, brother and mother all buying it then loosing your wife shortly after (my deepest sympothy) is a much more touching story then the one that hollywood made up. I have never understood why anyone allows Hollywood to change their stories so much, real or novels.
      Great job on saving those animals and I wish you all the best of luck. :)

    • http://yahoomail Lexyona

      we bought a zoo is a great movie i think me and my grandma are watching it right now on
      cable xzfinity Benjermain had a great idea

  • Grover and Joe

    My partner and I just finished the movie and absolutely loved it! We cried and laughed. What an inspirational feeling we had. God bless the Mee family for their perserverance through trying times and never giving up hope and most of all, faith! When we are back in England, will definately visit you wonderful wildlife preservation! Thank you!

  • Remy

    Good movie…why did they have to ruin it by allowing the sweet actress, who played the innocent daughter, say, “dick?” I would have allowed my children to see this wonderful movie…but that was SO not necessary! My kids are SMART and Aware…THAT ONE statement, will keep them from seeing this movie! What the heck??? FOUL! FOUL!

    • WB

      Remy you are a Dick, do you think your kids are never going to hear the word dick? Don’t you know anyone named Richard? Better not let them watch Mary Poppins either – it stars Dick Van Dyke you know, could scar them forever! Lighten up, We Bought Zoo is a fantastic movie, don’t deny it to your kids, they probably won’t even notice one “bad” word in the movie, especially if you don’t make such an unnecessary big deal out of it.

    • EB

      I agree with WB. You need to parent your children. You cant blame behavior of your children on a movie. Its called parenting, teaching right from wrong. I’m so tired of hearing people blame their childrens errors on someone else. The movie was wonderful! What great people that make up this family who took on such a challenge! Way to go!

      • lip

        Remy is being a good parent by not letting them see the movie b/c of the foul language. WB is right. Some day kids will hear swear words but why speed up the process. Good for you Remy.

  • jesse reed

    i saw the movie and i was suprised and blown away how you got the courage to run a zoo and a family too me you are a real life hero to your your family and those wonderfull creatures that you decided to take care of and love.

  • Delal

    Dear Benjamin. me and my family preciate you. unfourtunatly i do passed through a very tragedy life periods but i cured my self by loving and living with animals . maybe its hard to believe that when we watch the movie each part of animals care or waiting for sunshin to the next day we passed the same situation too. so happy so glad you could splend those beautiful feelings to the people that we have to save the animals. hope so much when visiting your country to visit your park. thank you so much

  • Alylizard98

    One question is the zoo in england as in europe?

    • Joanne Brokaw

      The actual zoo is in England, as in Europe. :) Although for the movie the setting was moved to California, USA.

    • varvel

      Yes, reading the intro…the actual life story takes place in Devon, England as in the continent ENGLAND….the zoo formerly known as the Dartmoor Wildlife Park is the property the “Mee” family bought and restored.

  • Toni LaCava

    What a wonderful movie. It made me cry. Your zoo gave you a new beginning and new life
    for your whole family. God bless you all. Hugs, Toni xoxoxo

  • Rutha M.

    Great movie! I love true stories and can’t wait for my daughter to get home from school to watch it.

  • Rutha M.

    Great movie! I just finished watching it w/ my husband and can’t wait for my daughter to get home from school to watch it.

  • ValerieSmith

    I loved the Movie also . It was very touching , i believe things happin for a reason and Benjermine and his children are where they are suppose too be. I would love too visit the zoo some day and bring my Family i believe it would change there way of thinking about Zoo’s.. Hope some day to do that … THANK YOU FOR BUYING THE ZOO.. VAL SMITH

  • Sheila Hall

    Wonderful movie! What a great giving family. I’m sorry for your tragedy. Your wife was obliviously a wonderful person. Thank you, for giving those great animals a chance. And giving others a chance to spend time knowing them!

  • cindy stacklie

    My husband and I just finished watching We Bought a Zoo. This was truly a very loving story. We love animals and it was so beautiful how your cared and loved all those animals. We were so sorry about your lovely wife and thank you for letting us see your personal life. You were doing God’s work. Thank you again.

    Marshall and Cindy Stacklie

  • glen a.

    a very touching true to life story… godspeed mr. benjamin…

  • brionna n.

    Sad and happy really good movie it made me cry 4 time

  • linda

    Sad and happy really good movie it made me cry 4 time i love it

  • Jeanne Fairy

    My family and I just went home from the cinema. The film was fantastic! If we ever get to go to USA (we live in Denmark) it Will be a must for us all to visit your zoo. It was a truly lovely store from real life. Fantastic there is people like this family who gives this zoo and all the animal a second chance to survive. This family deserve love, good health and wealth to keep zoo going on. God blees you and Your lovely kids.
    Kind regards from Jeanne in Denmark

    • Reg

      @ Jeanne Fairy, the actual park is in England, ie Europe, so you are closer than you think.

  • Perry family

    Beautiful story! We all watched the movie tonight and cried. Bravo!

  • Rich

    I think your experience is a great joy for anyone who comes into any knowing of it in any way, thank you for your courage and sharing . :)

  • Jean

    I just watched this for the second time, this time on DVD and cried and laughed thru it all over again. What an amazing uplifting story. I’m an animal lover also and was so touched by the devotion and perseverance of the Mee family. Wish I could travel to England to visit this awesome place

  • Leisa

    Such a wonderful movie words can’t express the feeling of love,gratitude and joy that I felt amidst the tears. Thank you

  • Sabina laurie

    I loved this story it shows real love, real friendship and a tight family unit! It’s all you need in a film! I hope mr mee and family are fine! Well done mr mee savour x x x x

  • Ricky Nielsen

    I just so the movie We Bought A Zoo, and I was surprise when I sow that the zoo existed.
    Sorry that you had to lose your wife, Benjamin, but great that you saved those animals.
    I hope the best for you and your family + that the zoo will keep on running:)

  • TINA

    Just watched the movie, it was beautiful. I am an eternal animal lover. God Bless you for saving those animals, and giving them and your family a wondeful home!

  • ivann ortiz

    It was a beautiful and sad story we enjoy the movie and would like t
    o see pictures and more information about the zoo we would like to visit soon. I would like to see pictures and how does it look like now.

  • Deb

    Thank you for this wonderful story – I am going thru difficult times and have been watching this movie several times a week because it gives me comfort and hope. God bless you and your family!

    Wish more movies like this one would be made.

  • Sherry

    I missed seeing the movie in the theatre so I bought the DVD and just watched a couple of days ago. I was not disappointed – it is a great movie. I love animals and owning a zoo would be an impossible dream! Watching Benjamin and his family live the dream is the next best thing! I got on the computer to see where the original zoo is located thinking I might be able to go visit. However, the UK is a little far for a zoo trip so I guess I will go to our great local zoo – Lincoln Park Zoo in OKC!

  • Nilanke Perera-Sri Lanka

    Wow., i just saw the movie and the inspiration was so overwhelming that i was compelled to check the website . What an amazing story of success despite hopelessness and tragedy… You Know… some times all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.. to achieve your goals.
    The movie was great and i’m glad the Mee family took up the courage to rebuild not just a Zoo but to conserve nature and preserve wildlife.
    All the best

  • Elari Onawa

    Thank you to the owners of the Dartmoor Zoo for following your hearts. What an inspiration you are. And thank you to the producers of the film, and Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansen, and all of the wonderful people involved in bringing this story to a wider audience. I’m still smiling!

  • David F

    Just finished watching the movie, then looked up the website. What a wonderful story of success through tragedy. Obviously the movie has had great poetic Licence, but is a wonderful feel good movie. Congratulations to the Mee family, keep up the good work.

  • Michael raygoza

    Congratulations in never giving up even when it rains sooner or later the SUN comes out! And your story is beautiful! The most important thing was never forgetting your wife! And what you did for your kids and animals! :) keep it up

  • Mrs.Brennan

    Thank you so much for writing your book an it being able to become a movie…
    My husband and I just got done watching it on HBO…
    I plan on buying your book and look forward to reading it…
    Thank you for saving the Zoo…
    Be wonderful…

  • Trina Gentry

    You all are awesome people and keepers of the animals who would have been lost forever.
    Out of your sadness came a real hope for going forward. I just saw the movie on HBO here in California and yes, I cried some. Show me an animal person who hasn’t cried over such life events and I’ll show you an unfeeling and uncaring person. God be with you all and care for you as you have cared for your zoo. Wish I could visit you in England, however, I feel you by me as I was watching the movie and the video of the real Benjamin. Nov. 4, 2012.

  • Victoria

    That was one of the bests movies I have ever seen, that touched my heart! I fell in love with their Dad! To have a man with such love in and out she was a lucky lady. The kids were also blessed.

  • Victoria

    This was one of the Best movies I have ever seen. It made me fall in love with this family. God bless you all!

  • Shahrukh

    What an amazing story . I normally dont cry tht easy but i had tears in my eyes . This movie is a must see

  • Victoria

    Never thought I could fall in love with a family. Good for you all


    Me & my daughter Loooove the move we know you end your family did the right thing
    hop that everything goes well and may God Bless You and your family

  • bernard R

    Great enjoyable story! You wanted Benjamin to win inspite of difficulties and obstacles! This film is the kind that really does something to the hearts and minds of people concerning dreams, desperation, hope, love, and perseverance. Very nice job! I am curious as to whether anything ever became of the touch and go love stories in this film?

  • Debbie

    I just wanna say wonderful thing you did. Taking on s home with the zoo I hope you have great success and I say I live in the United States so I don’t know if I will ever be able to get there but congratulations and good luck to you best wishes Debbie Potter

  • Bill Hedy

    Great story, movie, and beautiful people. What a great opportunity to work to save all those amazing animals. Thank you for taking on the challenge. I must admit I was disappointed when I found out the zoo wasn’t in California. It just means its going to be more then a weekend outing to visit the zoo. I got to find my passport.

  • terri potts

    A great and moveing movie, i am so glad u told a very real story of love. deteramatioy ou made me a better person for watching it

  • Joanna

    I regret it took me so long to see the movie and learn the story. Thank you to the Mee family for courage and adventure willingness to save 200 beautiful creatures. Bless you all. Animals are God’s way to heal his children .

  • Jess

    LOVE the true story… I was touched by watching the movie. Definitely will visit one day! Thanks to all who made this possible and well done!

  • Sophia

    Wow just watched your movie amazing! I watched all of it quite amazing story!

  • Sophia

    Wow just watched your movie amazing! I watched all of it quite amazing story! True story it made me think when I’m older I could maybe get A zoo and do what you done

  • Sophia

    Wow just watched your movie amazing! I watched all of it quite amazing story! True story it made me think when I’m older I could maybe get A zoo and do what you done! Well done

  • Gwen

    Hi, my name is Gwen n I watched “We bought a zoo” about 30-40 times already. When I watched it for the 4-5th time I realized I was exactly like Dylan, I didn’t know how to talk to my mother which in this case Dylan’s father. I don’t know if you guys are Christians or not but Benjamine thank you soooooooooooo much for saving the zoo. I do live in Canada but I will eventually get to go to England to visit the zoo. Wish more movies were like this one. Who needs to watch volience or nudity or naked bodies or even pornagrapghy when we can watch clean movies just like this one n several others out there as well. God bless you and your family, hope to see the zoo soon.

  • Gwen

    Hi, my name is Gwen n I watched “We bought a zoo” about 30-40 times already. When I watched it for the 4-5th time I realized I was exactly like Dylan, I didn’t know how to talk to my mother which in this case Dylan’s father. I don’t know if you guys are Christians or not but Benjamine thank you so much for saving the zoo. I do live in Canada but I will eventually get to go to England to visit the zoo. Wish more movies were like this one. Who needs to watch volience or nudity or naked bodies or even pornagrapghy when we can watch clean movies just like this one n several others out there as well. God bless you and your family, hope to see the zoo soon.

  • Grace

    Just saw the movie loved every minute of it. God bless the Mee family, for saving the zoo and their loved ones. I wish the zoo was in America so I could visit.

  • Gomathi Sollamuthu

    No words to describe what Benjamin and his family has done. Honestly, the story has inspired me to be more caring and loving. Of course I loved the phrase ” why not “. That phrase has made impossible to possible. GREAT!!

  • satiy satiy

    God Bless the family and friends

  • My Inner Chick

    Just watched the movie. SUPERB. I appreciate this interview and Benjamin’s perspective on life. LOooooooooVE!!!

  • AnnJoyViewster

    I loved the movie, and I was delighted by the fact that it’s based on a true story. It also made me wish more movies were like this one, instead of having lots of violence, guns, zombies and alien threats.

  • Ally

    I love We Bought a Zoo,,, every time I watch it,, (which is a lot) I see things I hadn’t seen before…. The characters are awesome and the fact it’s based on a true story, is fantastic.. I truly enjoy movies based on true stories….

  • Stacey Ann Lana Roberts

    I love this movie. I hope someday I can visit this zoo.

  • Ravi kumar

    i love the movie.. one day i will visit this zoo..

  • kbrigsby61 .

    Hello!, recently, I was is the Philippines; I saw this movie late one night after touring the country-side. What a fantastic job they did, saving the zoo. If I ever get to England I will be sure to stop in. Congrats and good luck!!!

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