In the market for a house and an adventure, Benjamin Mee moved his family to an unlikely new home: a dilapidated zoo in the English countryside. Mee had a dream to refurbish the zoo and run it as a family business. His friends and colleagues thought he was crazy.
But in 2006, Mee and his wife with their two children, his brother, and his 76-year-old mother moved into the Dartmoor Wildlife Park. Their extended family now included: Solomon, an African lion and scourge of the local golf course; Zak, the rickety Alpha wolf, a broadly benevolent dictator clinging to power; Ronnie, a Brazilian tapir, easily capable of killing a man, but hopelessly soppy; and Sovereign, a jaguar and would-be ninja, who has devised a long term escape plan and implemented it.
Nothing was easy, given the family’s lack of experience as zookeepers, and what follows is a magical exploration of the mysteries of the animal kingdom, the power of family, and the triumph of hope over tragedy. We Bought a Zoo is a profoundly moving portrait of an unforgettable family living in the most extraordinary circumstances.
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Mum and I arrived as the new owners Wildlife Park in Devon for the first time at around six o’clock on the evening of 20 October 2006, and stepped out of the car to the sound of wolves howling in the misty darkness. My brother Duncan had turned on every light in the house to welcome us, and each window beamed the message into the fog as he emerged from the front door to give me a bone-crushing bear hug. He was more gentle with Mum. We had been delayed for an extra day in Leicester with the lawyers, as some last-minute paperwork failed to arrive in time and had to be sent up the M1 on a motorbike. Duncan had masterminded the movement of all Mum’s furniture from Surrey in three vans, with eight men who had another job to go to the next day. The delay had meant a fraught standoff in the entryway to the park, with the previous owner’s lawyer eventually conceding that Duncan could unload the vans, but only into two rooms (one of them the fetid front kitchen) until the paperwork was completed.
So the three of us picked our way in wonderment between teetering towers of boxes and into the flagstoned kitchen, which was relatively uncluttered and, we thought, could make a good center of operations. A huge old trestle table I had been hoarding in my parents’ garage for twenty years finally came into its own, and was erected in a room suited to its size. It’s still there as our dining-room table, but on this first night its symbolic value was immense. Some boxes and carpets Duncan had managed to store in the back pantry had just been flooded, so while he unblocked the drain outside I drove to a Chinese takeout I’d spotted on the way from Route A38, and we sat down to our first meal together in our new home. Our spirits were slightly shaky but elated, and we laughed a lot in this cold, dark, chaotic house on that first night, and took inordinate comfort from the fact that at least we lived near a good Chinese place.
That night, with Mum safely in bed, Duncan and I stepped out into the misty park to try to get a grip on what we’d done. Everywhere the flashlight shone, eyes of different sizes blinked back at us, and without a clear idea of the layout of the park at this stage, the mystery of exactly what animals lurked behind them added greatly to the atmosphere. We knew where the tigers were, however, and made our way over to one of the enclosures that had been earmarked for replacement posts to get a close look at what sort of deterioration we were up against. With no tigers in sight, we climbed over the stand-off barrier and began peering by flashlight at the base of the structural wooden posts holding up the chain-link fence. We squatted down and became engrossed, prodding and scraping at the surface layers of rotted wood to find the harder core, in this instance reassuringly near the surface. We decided it wasn’t so bad, but as we stood up were startled to see that all three tigers in the enclosure were now only a couple of feet away from where we were standing, ready to spring, staring intently at us. Like we were dinner.
It was fantastic. All three beasts — and they were such glorious beasts — had maneuvered to within pawing distance of us without either of us noticing. Each animal was bigger than both of us put together, yet they’d moved silently. If this had been the jungle or, more accurately in this case, the Siberian tundra, the first thing we'd have known about it would have been a large mouth around our necks. Tigers have special sensors along the front of their two-inch canines that can detect the pulse in your aorta. The first bite is to grab, then they take your pulse with their teeth, reposition them, and sink them in.
As they held us in their icy glares, we were impressed. Eventually, one of these vast, muscular cats — acknowledging that due to circumstances beyond their control (i.e., the fence between us), this had been a mere dress rehearsal — yawned, flashed those curved dagger canines, and looked away. We remained impressed.
We started back toward the house. The wolves began their eery night chorus, accompanied by the sounds of owls — there were about fifteen on site — the odd screech of an eagle, and the nocturnal danger call of the vervet monkeys as we walked past their cage. This was what it was all about, we felt. All we had to do now was work out what to do next.
Table of Contents
In the Beginning 5
The Adventure Begins 21
The First Days 51
The Lean Months 71
The New Crew 139
The Animals Are Taking Over the Zoo 177
Spending the Money 209
Opening Day 245
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
We Bought a Zoo should have been a brilliant book, one I should have loved. Having been raised with the likes of My Family and Other Animals and the James Herriot books, I was looking forward to a similarly well-written and captivating story. Unfortunately, though the subject matter has all kinds of potential (what a cool thing to do, try to bring a dying zoo back to life), I found myself wanting more - more details of the animals (care, housing, personalities, special needs, related conservation issues), the various people involved in the project, and the day-to-day logistics of running a zoo. The book felt rushed, almost as if the author wanted to push it out the door so it could start earning money to help pay the feed bills. Though the tragic story of Katherine's illness no doubt had a profound effect on the author during the period covered by this book, telling the story here did not feel quite right. A second book to relate those events might have been more appropriate. As it stands, neither the zoo nor Katherine get the author's full attention. This might have been the way it was in real life, but the result is that this book is neither fish nor fowl, not fully successful as a moving personal account of the loss of a loved one and certainly not the scintillating zoological treat I had hoped to read.
If one doesn¿t get what this book is about from the title, the sub-title won¿t leave much doubt. ¿The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever¿ packs quite a lot into a subtitle. Unfortunately the ¿Amazing True Story¿ part is said without irony. Within the first dozen pages, the first `elephant in the room¿ one encounters is a deeply personal loss experienced by the author and his family and because of that I had trouble dealing with this book AND its subtitle. The loss was treated as a big problem to solve, somewhat as an obstacle to deal with while trying to buy and re-establish a zoo. Now, I¿m familiar with the British propensity for showing a stiff upper lip and all, but really. The author¿s priorities, to be generous, appear confused. I also took exception to his description of deeply personal bodily functions, and here my generosity ends, as he reveals this activity about a person who has no say about his disclosure of it. I know that real life has a habit of getting in the way of dreams and plans but somehow this baring of intimate details is tasteless and annoying. If the point of the book had been about the loved one in question, I might feel differently, but it wasn¿t. The parts of the book that dealt with finding out about the zoo, trying to buy it, finding the funding and then working to get it up to snuff was all quite interesting but the tragic and graphic details sat heavily on my mind and the suspicion that the author callously used these events to plump up his story was too great a distraction for me. The author had a film crew following him around during this whole zoo process and the end result was a documentary that aired on BBC. I wonder if the day-in, day-out filming caused Benjamin Mee to lose some portion of human perspective. I hope not.
While sometimes devolving into a rather depressing account of his wife's descent toward death, We Bought a Zoo is actually a very intriguing story about what happens when a typical individual simply decides to buy a zoo. I love animals, so I thought 'what better book to read?', and I can't say that I was ever bored by the story. It definitely reads like a memoir - delving into details of his family's personal life, sometimes with commentary that surprised me at how intimate it was - but there are also plenty of anecdotes about the animals to keep you really interested.I think what I took away from the book, above all else (random animal facts excluded) was a brand new understanding of all that it takes to run, of all places, a zoo. The legislation and regulations involved, the amount of connections one needs to make, how much money (and *wow*) it takes... not to mention how much training and expertise one needs to do a simple thing like feed the porcupines. Hah. I honestly now have a better understanding and appreciation for zoos and how they function, especially those geared toward conservation efforts. If you love animals and care about how they are cared for, you will probably appreciate Mee's memoir... just keep in mind while you're reading that that's exactly what it is: a memoir, so it won't read quite the same as, for example, a monograph on zoos and how they're run.