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

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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness