Filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) directs an amazing and true story about a single dad who decides his family needs a fresh start, so he and his two children move to the most unlikely of places: a zoo. With the help of an eclectic staff, and with many misadventures along the way, the family works to return the dilapidated zoo to its former wonder and glory.
In Theaters: Dec 23, 2011
THE TRUE STORY
In 2006, Benjamin Mee, a British DIY columnist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, moved his family from their peaceful existence in the south of France to the shuttered Dartmoor Zoo in the British countryside in Devon. Benjamin’s family consisted of his wife Katherine, his mother, his brother Duncan, and his two small children, Ella and Milo. “It was about an 18 month period between 2006 and 2007 where our family, more or less accidentally, decided to buy a zoo,” Mee recalls. “We were looking for a large house, where my mother could live with her extended family, after my father died.
“The estate agent’s details came through with lots of different properties and this one looked ideal,” Mee continues. “It was a once-grand twelve-bedroom house with a 30-acre garden in a nice part of the country. But it had the complication of 250 exotic animals in the garden. So you’d look through the details and it was kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms….along with various animal enclosures. And of course we laughed at first, but we went to see it anyway. We had always loved animals, and we just fell in love with it straight away and knew we had to do it. It was going to be closed if someone didn’t buy it, and about half of the animals would have been destroyed, because it’s really difficult to relocate these kinds of animals on such short notice. So we immediately had a sense of mission and purpose to pull out all the stops and get the place. Once we had done that we had to make sure it could earn its living and open it to the public again, which is a whole process in itself.”
Within a few months after purchasing the zoo, Benjamin’s wife Katherine, who was in remission from cancer, became ill again and she died at the age of 40. Three months later, Mee opened the zoo.
Mee says that in simple terms the impending opening of the zoo was a good distraction from the grief he and his family were going through. “It was a very cathartic process, working so closely with animals depending on you for their daily existence. In the midst of what we were going through, we could look out of the window and see life going on outside. People were coming in to work to feed the animals, and to look after them. You’re very much in touch with the whole cycle of life. It’s just a nice environment in which to recuperate.”
As a journalist and newspaper columnist prior to buying the zoo, Mee knew he could write a book about his experiences, but at first he thought he’d write a newspaper column. “I figured that this was an interesting subject matter and even when Hollywood bought the rights, I didn’t expect it to actually get made. And when it did, I didn’t expect it to get made on such a fantastic scale, with the stars and director that were chosen.”
Mee’s true adventure was chronicled in his 2008 bestselling memoir, “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever.” In the fall of 2007, prior to the book’s release, Mee’s story was documented in a popular four-part BBC Two documentary series entitled Ben’s Zoo.
Since then, Mee has divided his time between operating the zoo and public speaking, in which his focus is on encouraging others to pursue their dreams. “I’m stubborn in that I don’t give up when people tell me that something’s impossible. You’ll definitely fail if you just give up. If you try, you’ve got a chance, even when it looks impossible. If people find that message inspirational, then I’m delighted. If I can encourage people in some small way to seize their dream and see it through despite the odds, then I’d be happy about that.”