Damon lined up to star in film about family who saved Devon zoo

  • @tompeck

He is best known for playing Jason Bourne, the fast-fisted scourge of the CIA, in a trilogy of Hollywood films. Now the American actor Matt Damon is in talks over a new role that will see him do battle with lions, tigers and the occasional otter in the true story of an eccentric Englishman who bought a dilapidated zoo.

We Bought A Zoo is a movie adaptation of Benjamin Mee's memoir about how, after the death of his father, he convinced his mother to sell her Surrey home and buy Dartmoor Zoo which had fallen on hard times.

The 20th Century Fox film will be directed by Cameron Crowe, whose past credits include the Tom Cruise films Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky. He is said to be reworking an original adaptation by Aline Brosh McKenna, who also worked on The Devil Wears Prada.

The process of revamping and reopening the zoo for the public has already been the subject of a four-part television documentary, Ben's Zoo, which aired on BBC2 in 2007, and in many other countries since.

But the feature-length film will be the first time the extraordinary story of how the Mee family came to acquire the zoo and its 200 animals – and the difficulties they faced after Benjamin's wife died from brain cancer three months after – has been told in detail.

The story started when an estate agent's brochure for the zoo landed on the doormat of Mee's newly-widowed mother. The price tag almost exactly matched that of the five bedroom Surrey home she was looking to sell.

Mee and his brother decided it was "something for which we could restructure our entire lives" and put in a bid – which was flatly rejected on the basis that they had no money to invest and no idea how to run a zoo. But a year later the zoo was for sale again, and this time if a buyer wasn't found, the 200 animals would be shot.

Bankers, lawyers and mortgage brokers were summoned, loans arranged – but then at the last moment one of Mee's brothers lost his nerve and began an expensive legal battle against the rest of the family, acting as the executor for his father's half of the estate.

Although Mee managed to buy the zoo, the deal had to be done in his mother's name. And as his family found out, the £500,000 they would need to redevelop the zoo was not the kind of sum that loaned to a 76-year-old woman.

"Fending off creditors became a full-time job," Mee recalled, but things were not uniformly bad: mother, brother, wife and kids all set up home in a vast 12-bedroom mansion, hills undulating for seven miles to the sea.

In the "garden" were "five Siberian tigers, three African lions, nine wolves, three brown European bears, two pumas, a lynx, four Asian short-clawed otters, two flamingos, quite a lot of owls and a Brazilian tapir called Ronnie," Mee said.

His mother's two domestic cats, relocated from their Surrey garden, were also part of the menagerie. "They do their best to ignore the bellowing of the African lion," said Mee. "Their worst fright was jumping up on to a wall and discovering three big brown bears on the other side."

The family's dream almost came to an end when the head zookeeper burst into the kitchen four days after the move, to announce: "One of the big cats is out. This is not a drill!"

Mee was praised by the authorities for his handling of the situation, which involved mediating through the night between the escaped jaguar and a Siberian tiger whose enclosure he had found his way into, until a man with a dart gun arrived the next morning.

The zoo re-opened to the public in July 2007, but Mee is not resting on his laurels. "Whenever possible I like to go inside the enclosures, to see what it's like from the other side of the wire and wonder what can be improved," he said.

He once spent a considerable time constructing a cardboard zebra packed with meat and left it in the lion enclosure, an area he describes as "a disturbing place to be: one keeper error or lock malfunction could release three hungry cats expecting food, and finding us as a live bonus."