Dartmoor Wildlife Park, located in Dartmoor, Devon, England, was opened in 1968 by Ellis Daw on farmland bought by his family in 1948. The park was forced to close to the public on April 23, 2006, and was put up for sale.
What possess a sane person to buy a zoo? Not just a zoo, but a dilapidated zoo requiring massive amounts of money to fix and run? It was by accident that Benjamin Mee went from a career as a journalist writing a DIY column for The Guardian, to running a zoo.
After his father had died, his mother needed to sell the family home for something smaller. But quite the opposite happened. The real estate agent dropped a brochure in the mail describing a 30-acre zoo for sale for almost the same price she was asking for her house for sale. It seemed doable if Ben, Ben's wife and two children, and his brother Duncan moved into the once grand 12-bedroom mansion with her. And the 220 exotic animals already in residence on the property.
So began their adventure. They put in an offer, but it was rejected on the basis that they had no real money to invest or experience of running a zoo. Go figure.
About a year later, the zoo went up for sale again, the stakes were a bit higher this time though. The animals would have to be shot if a buyer wasn't found. And quick.
The owners wanted the sale to happen. The Mee's were the only bidders who wanted to keep the Wildlife Park as a zoo. Ben put all his energy into making the purchase a reality. And just as everything was falling into place, one of Ben's brothers who was the executor of his dad's estate raised a stink, and engaged the family in a legal battle. They were eventually able to buy the zoo, but in his mother's name instead of the limited company they had planned. With their pooled money, they only had about two weeks' running costs.That was August of 2006.
Then tragedy struck the family. Ben's wife, Katherine, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2004 and was given a grim prognosis of only a year to live. She underwent chemotherapy and was doing well in 2006 when the sale went through. But then her cancer came back with a vengeance and she died within a few weeks. Ben was now a single parent to his son Milo, 6, and daughter, Ella, 4.
The family was faced with dealing with their grief AND refurbishing the darn zoo. They persevered. The zoo reopened to the public in July 2007, renamed Dartmoor Zoological Park. That year, the BBC Two ran a four-part documentary chronicling the zoo's refurb entitled, Ben's Zoo.
The movie is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee titled, We Bought a Zoo: the amazing story of a young family, a broken down zoo, and the 200 wild animals that change their lives forever that was published by Weinstein Books in 2008.
Here's a fantastic video of an interview Mee did with Book Lounge:
Finally, here's a link to the Dartmoor Zoo website.
Talk to you soon.