Lions, jaguars, and a wolf intent on escape - why we bought a zoo

Ben Mee had always relished a challenge – and that's what he got when he and his family took on a run-down wildlife park

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We never planned to buy a zoo, it just sort of happened. The whole family had been looking for a small cottage for my mum to move into after my dad had died, and then the idea evolved that she could live with one of her five children, by pooling resources and buying a larger place. Which is how we came to be on the mailing list for what was then called Dartmoor Wildlife Park, for sale through a normal residential estate agents. At first we laughed – I mean, who buys a zoo? But the more we thought about it, the more we thought, "Why not?"

We soon discovered there are many very good reasons why not. But on the face of it here was a large 12-bedroom house in the middle of a park, which also happened to have lions and tigers roaming the grounds. A bit of research revealed that anyone can buy a zoo, as long as you employ qualified zoo professionals to run manage the animals. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot, actually.

Our idea of relocating with my mother did not go according to plan. Although the asking price for the 30-acre site was the same as that for my mum's five-bedroom house in two acres of Surrey, there was the small matter of the extra £500,000 we would need to renovate the place to make it serviceable and presentable to the visitors. During the long and unbelievably complicated negotiations, the zoo had closed, and the owner had handed in his licence. The place was very run down and the enclosures were ready to be bulldozed to make way for a nursing home. When we finally took possession after six months of wrangling with bankers and lawyers, and with the aid of a loan from the very understanding National Farmers Union Mutual, our problems really began.

After four days, our big male jaguar escaped, due to the error of a junior keeper. Amazingly, Sovereign the jag didn't kill the keeper, but chose instead to try to settle a grudge with the tiger in the adjacent enclosure. This he could jump into, but not out of, so the disaster was much less serious than it could have been, though the 17 hours it took for a dart-gun to arrive were among the most tense I have ever experienced.

There was much more to come. My lovely wife, Katherine, was not destined to see our labours come to fruition. In the middle of this miasma of learning curves, she had a recurrence of a brain tumour and died. The catastrophe could have pulled the family under, but the nature of the project, involving people and animals, in the cycle of life, kept us going.

A few months after the jag escape, Parker, the wimpy timber wolf, also made a successful bid for freedom, taking advantage of a rickety enclosure to escape the pressures of having to challenge for pack leadership. The instant the dodgy electric fence went down, Parker made it off the park, and down the road, through the village and very quickly into the national media.

I fielded increasingly hostile press and radio interviews, from journalists demanding to know (quite reasonably, really) exactly what we thought we were doing allowing a large black wolf to roam free endangering the public. Luckily, at a critical moment, Parker turned left, into a white china clay quarry, where he stuck out like a cherry on an iced cake.

Then a relatively harmless vervet monkey, who unravelled some wire mesh, decided to explore the various large trees on the park. She was very, very difficult to get down.

The enclosures are now all fit for purpose – the purpose of containment. I had assumed (assumption being the mother of all cock-ups) that the containment side of things in zoos didn't go wrong. But even the best zoos in the world have escapes and being prepared for that is an ever present part of our new reality.

The second issue around containment is, "Why do it at all?" I first encountered the anti-zoo perspective at college, when a friend declined an invitation to visit nearby London Zoo on ethical grounds. This stumped me because I knew that the Zoological Society of London did excellent conservation work, but it sowed the lingering doubt about keeping creatures used to roaming large ranges in much smaller spaces.

I was already interested in animal behaviour, having studied psychology specifically to explore the nature of animal intelligence, and my journalistic career was based on trying to explore this problem. Ultimately, I was commissioned to write a book on humour in higher mammals, specifically apes, elephants, dolphins and man. It was a dream come true, and I didn't think I could improve on it. Until this pesky zoo came along.

Our mission statement is: to protect endangered species, promote biodiversity, and educate about the need for conservation. Everybody here does their best to put this ethos into practice. And to complete this task we have 250 exotic animals, a staff of 34 keen and dedicated professionals with a range of skills between them, from darting a lion to blow torching a crème brûlée. Across that spectrum we have breeders of rare and endangered animals, welders, an education officer skilled in steering parties of school children, gardeners, car park marshals, kiosk operatives, and a host of volunteers able to identify rare plants, explain why a snail leaves a trail of goo behind it, and tend to the grounds. All housed in a 30-acre slice of south facing Devon woodland, which reliably attracts 80-90,000 visitors a year.

In addition to this national and international catchment, we are also very much part of the local landscape. As well as merging with the southern tip of Dartmoor, the local supermarkets, Tesco and Sainsbury, give us their fruit and veg which they would otherwise have to pay to put into landfill. Local farmers send us their fallen stock – a cow with a broken leg, bullocks culled in the spring – and even local road accidents involving horses have a happy ending, as far as our lions, tigers, lynx, wolves and bears are concerned.

In short, Dartmoor Zoological Park is an astonishing opportunity that life has somehow bestowed upon us, and I would encourage anyone to go to their local zoo, and make a detour on trips abroad, because it is likely that in 100 years the animals represented there will be the only examples of the species on the planet.

The children, as you would expect, have been pretty thrilled to live in a zoo. During the negotiations I often had to shush them away while I was on the phone – "Be quiet, daddy's trying to buy a zoo" – and I could see that they were sceptical. When they actually arrived they were wide eyed, and not a little afraid. The atmosphere of the place was quite spooky, always shrouded in mist with wolves howling and lions roaring at night. But they soon adjusted and delighted in helping the keepers with some of the smaller animals – the otters and ferrets being firm favourites. Eighteen months on, they are as likely to be plugged into Pokemon cartoons as any other child, and though a constant queue of friends want to visit to see the animals, they always ask to go to other people's houses to play video games.

Interestingly, that anti-zoo friend paid a visit this year, her first trip to a zoo in more than two decades. She was pleasantly surprised, and enormously frustrated at having to adjust a lifelong prejudice and admit: zoos work.

We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee, Harpercollins, £16.99. To order this book for the special price of £15.29, including post and packing, call 0870 0798897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Animal magic: how zoos aid conservation

* Zoos educate people in a way that television and other media cannot. There is nothing quite like actually seeing, or in some cases handling, an animal to bring home its true magnificence, and its plight.

* Zoos provide gene banks for endangered species whose natural habitats are threatened and, in many cases, no longer exist.

* Zoos co-operate with international networks of scientists protecting habitats, and reintroducing endangered species into the wild.

* Knowledge from captive breeding programs in zoos is used to stimulate breeding in the wild.

* Zoos provide a huge platform for reaching millions of people directly, and through the media, spreading important messages about conservation, biodiversity, and recycling in action.

* Zoos are a fun day out, providing effortless educational entertainment for all the family... and the ice creams of course.

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