We bought a zoo – and then they made a movie about it
Benjamin Mee, the inspiration behind the new Matt Damon film, recalls a mad week of tigers and premieres
Sunday 18 March 2012
In 2006, after a career in journalism, Benjamin Mee, with his wife, Katherine, two young children and mother, bought a large house in Devon, and the zoo that came with it. Some months later, Katherine died from a brain tumour, and in July 2007, the Dartmoor Zoological Park, which counts lions, tigers, wolves, bears and monkeys among its animals, opened to the public. Benjamin wrote a book about his tumultuous experiences, We Bought a Zoo, which was adapted by the American writer-director Cameron Crowe into a film starring Matt Damon (as Benjamin) and Scarlett Johansson. The film was released on Friday in Britain. Below, Benjamin, 47, describes the ups and downs of the past week, in which he shot a rat, fed a tiger and waltzed down a red carpet.
One of the busiest days of the year so far, which completely took us by surprise. The sun was unseasonably shining, and the publicity around the film finally seemed to have caught the attention of the visiting public. The first inkling of what lay ahead was at 10am, while I was taking aim at a rat which was stealing food from the agoutis, also a rodent. The difference is that agoutis are endangered, and the only endangered rat in the indigenous population was the one bobbing in and out of the sights of my air pistol. As he sat up to chew on a piece of apple, I began to squeeze the trigger. At that moment, "Look Mummy! Otters!" rang out from a family coming round the corner. I tucked away the pistol and pretended to help Kate, a senior keeper, in the enclosure. Smile and wave, and the rat scurried away to feed another day.
The surge of visitors kept on coming. Radio traffic on the walkie-talkies was urgent, but controlled, reporting the number of spaces available in the car park, waiting times in the restaurant, and preparations for talks and feeds. But it all seemed to be running smoothly. I had a BBC camera crew following me, so I took them to the tiger feed. I consulted with Mike, the head keeper, and we decided to see if he could actually get Vlad the Siberian tiger to work a bit for his dinner. I placed the meat 12ft up the tree instead of on his usual rock, and retreated to see how Vlad coped. Sadly, Vlad didn't cope very well. He eyed the meat, stretched towards it, looked a bit perplexed, then let out a mournful tiger low and gave up. In front of 300 people and a BBC camera crew, this big pussy cat failed to climb a tree.
At 5.00am the camera crew returned to set up for live satellite broadcasts at 6.50, 7.50 and 8.50, for the BBC breakfast show. Bleary-eyed, we did the broadcasts, culminating in a lovely encounter with the coati mundis (highly agile South American raccoons). Four of the five of them were born here, and are used to people, but they are still wild animals, with big sharp teeth, and don't like being stroked. After a quick safety briefing, the BBC journalist did a very controlled piece to camera, deftly fending off three coatis. "Nicely done," I congratulated him, as his phone rang. It was the studio, asking him about his risk assessment for the piece. He sucked it up for a bit, and then cracked. "After three tours in Afghanistan, I took the view that I could trust the advice of the people here, and I would be safe." He did, and he was.
As the visitors filed down the drive at the end of the day, the staff were excitedly gathering for the second regional premiere of We Bought a Zoo in Torquay. And their excitement wasn't unwarranted. At the cinema they were actually mobbed by fans wanting photos with them. After the screening, there was an almost frenzied book signing, with the immediacy of the emotions in the film translating into a yearning to learn more about the story. All I need to do is work out how to do signings in every cinema simultaneously when it goes on general release and all our financial problems will be over. Surviving for five years was always the whole plan, and we have just achieved that, though the company card was declined at the beginning of the month when I tried to buy milk for the restaurant. It's been hand-to-mouth, but now, with the film about to be released, there is real light at the end of the tunnel.
We ended the day overlooking a misty bay in Torbay, with boats bobbing in the harbour, while we ate a Chinese takeaway off the tailgate of my pickup truck. As Colin, Kate and the keepers and volunteers played around with my children, Milo, 11, and Ella, aged nine, all high on the film and chronic fatigue, it felt completely and luxuriously familial.
ITV Daybreak arrived to do background filming to add to a live studio broadcast later in the week. At the end of the day I had a chat with Amy, our education officer, as we passed in the village on our respective school runs. We stopped in the middle of the road and wound down our windows and chatted. Duchy, a huge local agricultural college, wants to invest in enhancing a teaching area at the zoo for its students, as its neighbours and friendly rivals Bicton College has done.
Later, Mike announced that we can get three cotton topped tamarins (tiny, endangered monkeys) and two pygmy marmosets (even tinier, non-endangered monkeys) from Drusilla's Zoo in Sussex. The cotton tops can go in the empty enclosure right outside my cottage. I'm thrilled. These are the first new primates we've been able to get in five years. And the start of a very long road towards orangutans. I ended the day by bagging the biggest rat I've ever shot at the park, which more than made up for the one that got away.
Today was spent with a newspaper journalist and photographer, going over the same story. I took them up to the tigers; Vlad's meat was still there in the tree. He was given a big, juicy piece that was easy to reach. But I'm not finished with him yet. I will stretch that cat. I spent much of the day trying to persuade the police to return some rifles and handguns to Andy Goatman, the local slaughterman who supplies us with meat from local farms. He is also a gifted electrical engineer and IT wizard. Andy can disassemble a server as deftly as he can a bullock, but sadly has a similar attitude to reassembling them both: he doesn't do it.
Andy's IQ officially makes him a genius, but I could understand why the officer who stopped him probably thought he was averting a massacre. The inside of Andy's cab looks like a skip, but I explained that Andy's guns are specialist tools which he uses carefully and knowledgeably, and they agreed to an emergency case review.
A blur. First-class rail tickets for me and the children, courtesy of the film distributors Fox, to London and the premiere of We Bought a Zoo at the Mayfair Hotel. We stayed in the old penthouse suite, which is twice the size of the cottage I live in at the zoo. On the red carpet at the screening was the event host, Christine Bleakley, who I'd only ever seen on the telly, and in the Q&A afterwards Bill Oddie asked a question. I told him about the high density of robins we have on site, and he said he might come down to check it out.
On this fourth viewing of the film I could distance myself from the intensely personal sequences dealing with the death of my wife, Katherine, and found that I was still moved by the rest of the film. I had always wondered what made Matt Damon, the man who played Jason Bourne, decide to play a man who buys a zoo. But watching the process on the big screen, of this chancer-journalist bobbing about and making it happen, it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. He really did put it all on the line, buying a zoo to raise his family in, and to stop the animals being destroyed. And, against the odds, he pulled it off. But I still couldn't get used to Damon on the big screen answering his phone with "Benjamin Mee".
Even more of a blur. Two hours' sleep, a live ITV Daybreak interview on the surreal morning sofa with the poor groggy children (reaching saturation point), then 14 back-to-back radio interviews in a studio at the BBC, while the kids drank them dry of hot chocolate outside. I used to do this for a living. From 3pm the day was free, so I had time to sort out a prescription for Ella for a recurrent infection, and, courtesy of Fox, it was biked to the suite. Unfortunately, we were all asleep when it arrived, but they left it just inside the door. Then the police called to inform me they had released Andy's guns, and I felt this was my greatest achievement of the week. It was a toss-up between dinner in Mayfair on Fox, or down at my old local, the Lansdowne in Primrose Hill, north London, with friends. No contest. And the Lansdowne hadn't changed at all.
Another early-morning TV appearance, this time for Sky. I was nearly late because, instead of washing her hair in the astonishing round stone bath, Ella was watching the bathroom TV from it. Of course. Unfamiliar surroundings bring unfamiliar hazards. After the filming, a radio interview, and then time for a browse with the children in a second-hand bookshop, a vital trip to Muji for some clear-perspex desk accessories which are not available in Plymouth. Then the train ushered us from the frenetic lights and pace of the city into the lush green hills of Devon, and we arrived back at the zoo in the dark. As I stepped from the taxi, my shoe, which had been unusually clean for three days, hit the ground with a squelch of mud. It really was great to be back.
We Bought a Zoo is on general release; review on page 58. For more information about Dartmoor Zoological Park, visit www.dartmoorzoo.org
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