Lions, jaguars, and a wolf intent on escape - why we bought a zoo - Nature - Environment - The Independent

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


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

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.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
Tim Wiese
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

KS1 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Corporate Communications Manager - London - up to £80,000

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Corporate Marketing Communications M...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week