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

Cameron Crowe’s 2011 comedy-drama film ‘We Bought a Zoo’ depicts the affecting true story of Benjamin Mee, who bought a 30-acre zoo located in Dartmoor, England. Ben’s search for a house for his family to stay in ended when he learned about Dartmoor Wildlife Park. He came to know that the fates of the animals in the place were threatened if a buyer couldn’t take responsibility for them, which made him buy the place. Despite facing a severe personal tragedy, Mee succeeded in transforming the establishment into the present Dartmoor Zoological Park. Even though Crowe had taken creative liberties to portray Mee’s life in the film, the latter’s resilience and compassion were not lost in translation!

Buying the Zoo

Benjamin Mee set out to buy a house in 2006, after the death of his father. His mother Amelia wanted to live with the rest of the family, which led her son to sell his house in Southern France. The journalist then learned that Dartmoor Wildlife Park was on sale. The family of animal lovers was intrigued to find out whether they could be the new residents of the place. “I’d had a total lifelong preoccupation with animals, right from being a young boy when I pondered what must go on inside the minds of my mum’s cats,” Mee told the Daily Express. The zoo was not in the best condition under then-owners of the establishment.

“It was so run-down under the previous ownership, it was dangerous,” Mee told Devon Live. The authorities closed it down by then because of the dilapidated state of the establishment. Mee confronted the possibility of animals getting rehoused or even put down, which affected him. Together with his family, Mee then bought the park with around 250 animals and the adjoining house for over £1million. Mee and his brother Duncan borrowed £500,000 to renovate the zoo and open the same by Easter of 2007. That’s when Mee had to deal with an unbearable tragedy. His wife Katherine, who was suffering from brain cancer, died in March 2007.

Katherine’s Death

Katherine’s death devastated Mee but his obligations as the zoo owner helped him deal with the pain. “I was stunned with grief,” Mee said in the same Daily Express interview. “But the animals needed to be fed and looked after so somehow we had to get on with it. Even when Katherine had deteriorated and could no longer speak, I’d seen the joy on her face when I’d taken her in her wheelchair to see the tigers. I had to try to keep our dream alive,” he added. The pressure of opening the zoo and his wife’s death were on his head but still, Mee managed to overcome these challenges. “At the time, I would have preferred not to have the pressure but, with hindsight, the zoo and all its demands probably kept me sane,” he added in the Devon Live interview.

In the film, Katherine’s death happens before Mee buys the zoo, which was a change made by director Cameron Crowe and his co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna. “Surely, I said, it is a big part of the story? But I was told people would just not want to see the film,” Mee told The Guardian about the placement of Katherine’s death in the movie. “Crowe spoke to me and told me not to worry because Katherine’s presence would underpin the whole film. I did wonder how they were going to do that. But he was right. It really goes into the impact of the death in a way you don’t expect in a family film,” he added.

Differences Between Real and Reel Lives

Katherine’s death is not the only deviation from reality in the film. In real life, Mee didn’t have a relationship with his zookeeper, contrary to the protagonist’s romantic connection with Scarlett Johansson’s Kelly Foster. “Scarlett’s character is a composite of the real characters of [keepers] Hannah and Robert and another keeper who really was called Kelly. But I did not have a relationship with any of them!” he added in The Guardian interview. In the film, Mee chooses to buy the zoo blindly on his own but his real-life counterpart spent several months deciding whether or not to buy the establishment with his family.

“I think Matt Damon’s been interviewed a few times and called this an act of desperation, which in the chronology of the film, post-bereavement, you can see that he’s almost a little bit too wild. Whereas we spent as a whole family a very long time considering this – again, another slight discrepancy,” Mee told MTV. Furthermore, Mee wasn’t the only one involved in the sale of the property. “We actually bought the house for my mother, and it was a joint [purchase] between all of us; we have five siblings and four of those agreed that’s what we should do,” he added.

Although Mee and his siblings bought the house for their mother, she is not a character in the comedy-drama. Mee’s property is located north of the village of Sparkwell on the southwest edge of Dartmoor, an upland area in the county of Devon in England. In the movie, however, the zoo is located in California. “[The film] just been kind of transplanted to sunny California [from England], because I think the thinking was more people would want to see it. I also think it was easier to make it nearer to the trained animals that Hollywood draws on,” Mee added in the MTV interview.

Opening the Zoo

Mee and his family opened Dartmoor Zoological Park in July 2007. He developed the collection at the establishment and even launched an Education and Research Department. After nine years of private ownership, Mee and his family donated the zoo to Dartmoor Zoological Society, a charity operated by a team of specialists who report to the trustees, who have the overall responsibility of running the establishment. Mee remains the CEO of the charity and lives at the property with his family.

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