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.

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