Is Kelly Foster Based on a Real or Fictional Zookeeper?

Kelly Foster is the head zookeeper at Rosemoor Animal Park in Cameron Crowe’s 2011 drama film ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ When Benjamin Mee buys the establishment and tries to reopen the zoo, Kelly tries her best to help him achieve his goals. Kelly is highly dedicated to the survival of the zoo, which makes her sacrifice her personal life for the betterment of the establishment. Her experience as a keeper becomes important for Mee to get the license of the zoo re-approved and open the place to the public. Kelly is not based on a particular person. She is a character screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna created but she does have real-life connections as well!

A Combination of Several Real-Life Zookeepers

Kelly Foster is a fictionalized combination of several zookeepers who worked or have been working at Dartmoor Zoological Park, the real-life counterpart of Rosemoor Animal Park. “Scarlett’s character is a composite of the real characters of [keepers] Hannah and Robert and another keeper who really was called Kelly,” Benjamin Mee told The Guardian. Furthermore, Mee didn’t have a romantic connection with any of the zookeepers, unlike the protagonist of the film, who gradually develops a moving companionship with Kelly. “But I did not have a relationship with any of them!” Mee added.

Like Kelly, the keepers at Dartmoor Zoo have been immensely dedicated and selfless. Around the time Mee bought the establishment, they were paying a part of the costs of the zoo on their own. “The first time I met Kelly I got a surprise. As with Hannah, she was one of the two dedicated cat keepers who had stayed on against the odds to look after the animals, sometimes not being paid, and having to pay for vitamin supplements for the animals [and rudimentary sundries—like flashlight batteries and toilet paper] out of their own pockets,” Mee wrote in his memoir ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ the source material of the film.

When Mee bought the zoo, he was advised to replace the staff members at the place, including Hannah and Kelly. “Because of their tremendous devotion to the tigers, and their occasional forays into sentimentality, Kelly and Hannah, who had stuck with the animals through some extremely testing times, were denounced by senior zoo establishment figures I was in contact with as ‘bunny huggers,’” reads the memoir. However, he was not ready to ignore their commitment to the zoo and the sacrifices they had made for years for the betterment of the animals in the establishment.

“When I looked at Kelly and Hannah I saw dedicated zookeepers, unqualified perhaps, but absolutely invaluable holders of knowledge about the specific animals we had, and whom they had looked after, for several years in often intolerable circumstances. They were loyal [to the animals rather than us] and extremely hardworking,” Mee added about the duo in the source text. The keepers at the zoo are some of the biggest support systems of Mee, who faced several challenges to keep Dartmoor Park open over the years. Hannah is currently the acting curator at the establishment, which explains her significance.

When Crowe set out to adapt Mee’s memoir to the drama film, the narrative seemingly demanded a typical heroine figure who has an integral presence in the zoo, which paved the way for the creation of the character Kelly. Her characterization as the head zookeeper can be seen as an homage to committed keepers who have been working tirelessly for Dartmoor Park for years.

Read More: We Bought a Zoo’s True Story: What Happened in Real Life?