Benjamin Mee, a freelance writer who bought a dilapidated zoo on the edge of Dartmoor as a retirement home for his mother, will probably not mind if disappointed visitors discover he has a little less hair than Matt Damon.
Mee, whose unorthodox career change has been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster – We Bought a Zoo – is simply grateful to have visitors arrive through the gates of Dartmoor Zoo. And the reassuring thing about visiting a zoo which has inspired a big-budget movie is that the exotic animals are just as luxuriantly furred as their charismatic Hollywood counterparts.
Damon, Scarlett Johansson and the director Cameron Crowe – of Jerry Maguire fame – pitched up just in time. If it wasn’t for their film, which premieres in London on Thursday night, the family-run zoo would have gone bust.
At the beginning of this month, Mee’s company credit card was rejected when he tried to buy milk for the cafe because he only had of credit left. Now, says Mee, there is hope.
On a sunny March morning, his 33-acre zoo appears idyllic. Solomon the lion gazes imperiously from his hilltop enclosure, while tigers Vlad and Stripe go on the prowl. A lone wolf sits in the picturesque woodland while meerkats and monkeys bounce around in their enclosures.
There is one problem: it’s been open for an hour and there is not one customer. Through a warren of Devon lanes, the zoo is not easy to find. Making a Hollywood movie has proved simpler than persuading the council and highways authority to erect the correct brown signs for the tourist attraction. Is anyone here? “They’ll be along shortly,” said the zoo curator Colin Northcott.
Mee took over the crumbling zoo in 2006, after persuading his mother, Amelia, to sell the five-bedroom family home in Surrey and buy – with the same m asking-price – the run-down house on the edge of Dartmoor that happened to come with a zoo. Their purchase saved 200 animals from being shot.
This decision caused one of Mee’s brothers to fall out with the rest of the family and take legal action against them. On the fourth day of Mee’s ownership, their jaguar, Sovereign, escaped. Instead of heading into the local village he got into another enclosure and picked a fight with a tiger.
While Mee battled to reopen the zoo, his wife, Katherine, died of a brain tumour, aged 40, leaving him to raise their children, Milo, 11, and Ella, 9.
It is little wonder the film rights to Mee’s story were snapped up. But a m movie has not aided a Hollywood ending. Although Mee benefited from when the film went into production and they will receive 5% of the movie’s net profit (less impressive when distribution costs and legal fees are subtracted), the zoo went into liquidation in 2009. Mee had to borrow another from donors to keep it going.
“It’s absolutely hand-to-mouth the whole time because the banks aren’t lending anything,” said Mee. “What comes through the door is all there is.”
Much of the lion food comes from cows and horses killed by trains, which the zoo gets for free. And the film photographs on the cafe walls were grabbed by Mee from the foyer at the New York premiere. The zoo is only open because its 22 staff are helped by more than 50 volunteers.
Mee admits he was disappointed that the film was set in California and not in Devon but the film bosses demanded sunshine and trained animals. Some of the Hollywood moments make Mee cringe and he felt “anxious” about how the film would depict his bereavement.
After watching it three times, he is more relaxed. “It’s a good film made with real compassion,” he said. The film “gave us the hope to continue”, said Mee. “There’s still a big hole to crawl out of but I’m confident we can get this place supporting itself.”
By late morning a trickle of visitors are admiring the peacocks and pygmy goats under a turkey oak. Mee hopes the film will boost annual visits from 100,000 to up to 500,000. The film’s pre-publicity has already featured on the One Show and Blue Peter, and encouraged this modest crowd.
“Partly that and also there was a Groupon voucher,” said Alison Pennicott, who lives in Exeter and never knew the zoo existed until she saw it on TV.
“This is my first day as an OAP so I got cheap entry,” said Mike Slade from Plymouth. He remembered the zoo in the days before Mee took over.
“It’s better kept now. It was a little bit desperate because you felt more sorry for the animals than pleased to see them. They had a bear pit with a solitary bear begging to be fed. I hated that.”
Mee hopes a bumper year will help fund more conservation research – this year there are 30 academic studies being conducted among the animals at the zoo. “It’s a fantastic place in its own right,” he said. “All it needs is people to see it.”
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