A family run zoo in Devon has become the unlikely inspirational source for a Hollywood movie. ‘We Bought A Zoo’ staring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson tells the story of Ben Mee, and his family who bought a run-down zoo despite having no experience of caring for animals and limited money.
After his father died early 2005, Benjamin Mee convinced his 76-year old mother Amelia to sell their Surrey home in which he and his three brothers and sister grew up, to buy an old house on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon with a failing zoo.
He also managed to persuade his wife Katherine that they should leave their barn conversion in France and move their young family, Milo and Ella back to the UK to live with his mother.
The zoo was dangerously run down and Mee was faced with a large number of expensive tasks in order to keep the zoo afloat. Mr Mee, a former newspaper columnist, his brother Duncan and mother purchased the Zoo in August 2006 for £1.1m and his wife and kids moved into the decaying mansion that occupies the park. They were also joined by Mee’s mother and brother who quickly learnt to cope with faulty plumbing, damp, wet rot and a lack of heating.
The family found themselves to be proud owners of five Siberian tigers, three African lions, nine wolves, three brown bears, two pumas, a lynx, four Asian short-clawed otters, two flamingos, a flock of owls, a Brazilian tapir called Ronnie, monkeys and several emu’s.
After a major refurbishment the zoo re-opened for business in July 2007, tragically, just months before the re-opening Benjamin Mee’s wife Katherine passed away from a re-occurrence of an aggressive fast growing brain tumour.
There are several differences between the movie storyline and the real life story, such as the escaping bear plot in the film was actually a jaguar called Sovereign in real life. Also Benjamin’s children were much younger in real life than they were in the film.
The duration of buying the zoo was a lot different, in real life it took almost two years for the family to buy the zoo where as in the movie adaptation Benjamin’s first offer was rejected due to his lack of experience in a zoological worlds
After Ben’s book proved to be a bestseller in American the film rights were purchased by 20th Century Fox. The movie was made for $50 million, and the most recent recorded turnover has been $103,266,806.