Mee and snake
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Help! I bought a zoo

This man and his family gave it all up to buy a dilapidated zoo. So why is he now being played by Matt Damon in a Hollywood movie? asks Gill Pringle

Written by Gill Pringle
Who would buy a zoo? It may sound like a dream come true when looked at from the comfort of an armchair, glass of wine in hand, but have you ever considered how much work would be involved? Imagine scrubbing the elephants and feeding the tapirs, counting the tarantulas and cleaning out the tigers.

But that didn't put off Benjamin Mee. In 2006, he moved his family from their idyllic home in the South of France to take on a run-down zoo on Dartmoor, Devon.

WBAZ-460It was anything but easy. Three months before the zoo, now called Dartmoor Zoological Park, reopened, Benjamin's wife, Katherine, tragically died of a brain tumour. He was now the single father of their two children, Ella and Milo, too.

But much has happened since. Mee's 2008 memoir, We Bought A Zoo, became a bestseller, and is now a Hollywood movie – in which he is played by none other than Matt Damon. But suggest to Mee that his life must have changed hugely since being portrayed by a Hollywood star, and he lets out an ironic sigh.

'You'd think?' he says. 'I've recently moved out of the big house on the grounds to a cottage nearby because only a bit of the house was habitable. But it's cold in the cottage, there's no floor in the bathroom and I've actually bought an air pistol so I can shoot rats from the bed.

'And you're thinking, "I'm freezing, shooting rats here. What am I doing? Why don't I just go back to the South of France and buy a swimming pool with my advance?"

'But it's such a responsibility having taken the zoo on; if one of the animals got out and hurt someone while I'm here, it would be my fault. If the zoo had to close, three-quarters of the animals would be killed and all the staff would become unemployed. And I feel that on me all the time.

'There are two or three books that I would love to write, and big money advances are being spoken of. But not big enough because the zoo just sucks money in – what it needs is a regular stream of interested people, which is what I hope the film will provide.

'The economics of the zoo is a bit similar to the National Health Service, which has an open-ended requirement for money but what you're running is a stage play to help support it and sometimes the audience comes and sometimes the audience doesn't come.

'The zoo has a real show business feel to it. The keepers get there at about 7.30am but we don't open till 10am so everything dirty has to happen before then. I enjoy the fact that it's a business that requires interacting with people and giving them a nice time but also educating them. By the time visitors leave, they're absolutely energised at being so close to the animals. It's a very therapeutic environment.'

Mee is also excited at the prospect that the movie will help to re-energise his zoo and bring visitors to the region. 'There's a place nearby called Antony House which was used as a backdrop for the tea party in Johnny Depp's Alice In Wonderland – and they got five times the usual number of visitors after the film came out. So we're thinking if we get five times the usual number that will be about half a million people coming through, and they'll all need to stay somewhere – I just hope they don't come all at once on a wet day in August.'

free-DA54740524When Mee was first asked who he thought should play him in the film, he immediately began polling his friends for their opinion. 'The first suggestion was Hugh Grant. How do you get that exactly? He's not a bad guy but I just don't see him as me.

'You don't have a list in your mind automatically of who's going to play you in a film. I was quite keen on Ewan McGregor, now that I would watch. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson also came up. It's the humour. I tried to put humour into the book.

'But Matt Damon is a funny guy, there's a sort of subtle humour to everything that he does. He does self-deprecation really well and that's a difficult thing, and he can also instigate humour. He's grounded, too, and doesn't seem to be full of himself.'

Before filming began, Mee wanted the film-makers to use the real Devon zoo, but eventually he was persuaded that it would be better not to.

'They patiently explained how you need to have trained animals who respond and do take one, take two and take three. If you try to get our lion to look this way, he might not come out for three days after that.'

I ask Mee if he expects to see a sequel and he laughs: 'I noticed in the contract that they have the rights for a fictional sequel. Imagine that? I asked if that was normal and they said "yes", and I said, "OK, so you could have WBAZ 2 where Benjamin Mee goes crazy, becomes an axe-murderer, kills people and feeds them to animals?" and they said, "We wouldn't want to do that".

'"But you could", I replied and they said, "We could... but we wouldn't".'

Hmm... perhaps Benjamin should just stick to the zookeeping.

We Bought A Zoo is in cinemas now.

For more information on Dartmoor Zoological Park, call 01752-837645 or visit www.dartmoorzoo.org



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