Exclusive Interview: Benjamin Mee, The Author/Journalist Who Inspired Cameron Crowe's WE BOUGHT A ZOO

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In last year’s We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a father who, still grieving from the death of his wife, uproots his family and buys a dilapidated California zoo.  It’s a good story, but one that most people would brand as a Hollywood fantasy….

…. Save for the fact that this fantasy actually happened.  Well, mostly happened.  Matt Damon wasn’t involved, and the film’s “Rosemoor Animal Park” is actually the England-based Dartmoor Zoological Park, but the broad strokes are all fairly accurate: looking to buy a bigger house for his family, British journalist Benjamin Mee moved his family to Devon where they began the arduous task of renovating the Dartmoor Zoo.

The film dramatizes this process with a certain wry warmth, but the reality was far more grueling; Mee suddenly found himself wrestling with the logistics of caring for over 200 exotic animals.  Perhaps even worse: his wife Katherine died three months after they began working at Dartmoor, leaving Mee and his two young children adrift.  Nevertheless, they persevered—an experience that Mee first recounted in his memoir, We Bought A Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever—and Dartmoor Zoological Park thrives today.

In the following interview, Benjamin Mee discusses his involvement with the film’s development as well as his reaction to seeing the Matt Damon version of himself, his continuing challenges running Dartmoor, and his thoughts regarding the importance of zoos in wildlife conservation.

To what extent were you involved with the film during its production?

They talked to me—at length—during the development of the screenplay, in particular, moving around events; every book that’s adapted for the screen has to be simplified, and it’s not always something the author can do because you’re too precious about it.  They were extremely good at explaining to me the changes that needed to be made.

Of course…for a long time I was aware of this [film project].  I was consulted, particularly with things like moving the death of my wife—which actually happened after we bought the zoo—moving that beforehand.  It all allowed the theme of regeneration to permeate throughout the film.  The family recovers itself while it’s building the zoo…

We didn’t visit the set until two weeks before the end of filming, so there was no scope for me to throw a hissy fit or stamp around saying, “Oh, it wasn’t like this.” [Laughs] I found that Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon, in particular, are two of the kindest and most sympathetic people in Hollywood.  I knew my story was in safe hands.

How did you respond, then, when you saw the movie?  Was it difficult, reconciling this fiction with something you actually lived through?

The emotions were so high for the whole thing.  I’d been preparing for about two years to sit down in a cinema and have the story on screen.  My primary concern, as it always is, was watching it with my children for the first time, and I knew there would be some vivid scenes involving their mother.  I explained this to them countless times; they are very good children, and I communicate with them a lot.  There are no secrets, and they understood the likely impact it would have on them.

But I found out, very quickly, that I got swept up in the film itself and forgot that it was about me.  It brought back, every now and again, when somebody says to Matt Damon, “So, Mr. Mee, what are you going to do about this,” and I thought, “Oh, God, they’re talking about me!” [Laughs] Luckily, with the direction and Matt Damon being such a nice guy, it all came out well.

I have to say, it’s a lot harder than what’s portrayed on-screen.  The reality [of maintaining and operating a zoo] is very, very hard and much more complicated.  They do have that sense that everything is dependent on certain key events happening at particular times, but that process went on, and on, and on.  And it’s still going on, to some extent; I’m worried about this month’s payroll, for instance, and that thing only happens once or twice in the film.  Really, it’s a monthly event for me. [Laughs] You don’t get much sleep in the second half of the month because you’re worrying about the money.

It’s interesting that you bring that last issue up; can you talk about the day-to-day grind of owning a modern-day zoo?

Today, the car park is an ongoing problem.  You don’t think about this; you’re normally worrying about the animals, and, “Are the animals healthy?  Are they contained?  Are they fed?  Great.  Is there ice cream in the shop?”  But the car park: it had to be marked out properly, or else schools of people can’t come in.  They’d park in the village, and the village complains, so I’ve been physically designing a way of marking out the car park gravel—gravel, because you can’t afford tarmac—with our maintenance crew.

It’s the details you’re not expecting to deal with.  You assume that’s done, but then you find out that actually, it’s not done, and no one else is going to do it except me.  I’m still finding the limits of my responsibilities.  I mean, they were brought home very quickly on the fourth day when we got here; a jaguar was let out by one of the junior members of the staff and actually escaped.  I mean, freedom until he jumped inside another big cat enclosure.

That was traumatic, but it brought home to me that it is my responsibility to make sure the keepers don’t make that mistake because otherwise, people will die, and the zoo will close, and it’s all for nothing.  It’s been a learning curve, and I’m still very much on it.

As a journalist, how were your perceptions of zoos challenged by your new day job, so to speak?

It’s actually very positive and promising.  When I was a kid, I was very struck by this gorilla at London Zoo called “Guy the Gorilla.”  He was the most famous creature in the country, and my parents took me to see him.  He was sitting in a little, concrete enclosure, and he was clearly obese and very grumpy.  He just looked fat and bored and cross, and his eyes were lifeless.  And I thought, as a small child, “It’s wrong!  He needs woods and forests and such.  He needs things to play with; he needs to be stimulated.”

I went to college; I studied animal psychology, and I always thought I’d get involved in enriching the lives of animals in captivity whilst I was doing my other work.  I had no idea I would be thrown into the deep end at this time of my life.  What is very uplifting is the enrichment of captive animals’ lives is a huge growth area—all zoos around the world now have caught onto the idea that, if you’re going to keep these animals for education and conservation purposes, you need to do everything you can to stimulate them.

I’m very proud to say that this zoo has become a national leader in developing enrichment strategies; we’ve got two universities working very closely with us, several masters’ degree projects going on about that monitor the health and activity levels of the animals.  That’s something I see in zoos I travel to…Initially, I was probably a bit of a skeptic, but from the inside, it looks good, this industry.

On that note: over the past year, we’ve seen mentions in the news about the Chiang Mai Zoo or the incident in Zanesville.  How have events like those intensified your responsibilities?

I’m hugely interested in that because the zoological community is quite conservative.  It’s afraid of the press and publicity because there’s this whole thing of, “You shouldn’t keep animals in captivity.” There’s an honorable, deeply moral reason to keep endangered animals in captivity, and that’s to learn about them so you can breed them and perhaps reintroduce them into the wild.  You use the learning you have to help the wild populations flourish despite their diminishing circumstances.

The tigers we have are from Siberia, and there are only 400 of them left in Siberia, and their biggest cause of death—apart from human predation—is starvation because their habitats are being broken up, and increasingly the animals they prey on just aren’t there.  They’re having to eat bears just to survive.  A tiger will kill a bear or a small bear with no problem, except that it’s quite a tough lunch to catch…you have to kill a bear, or else you die of starvation.

Our tigers don’t have to do that.  One of ours is sixteen years old; she would have died in the wild by now.  She would probably have died at the age of twelve or thirteen, and I have found that, as a journalist coming into the zoo world, the zoo world doesn’t shout enough about the good work that we do, and the way that all zoos around the cooperate together.

I can get on the phone with a neighboring zoo and get advice immediately on how to deal with an animal health problem, or we can exchange animals, free of charge, which would otherwise be worth many thousands of pounds on the open market.  That collective responsibility that we all have, which I find the zoo people aren’t aggressive enough about it.  As a journalist, I don’t mind going on air and challenging people who don’t understand what zoos do.

We Bought A Zoo streets on Blu-ray on April 3rd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s Blu-ray listing, and HERE for the website’s listing of Mee’s print memoir.

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