Benjamin Mee's incredible true story of how he 'more or less accidentally decided to buy a zoo' with his young family inspired the hugely successful Cameron Crowe movie We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, which has taken almost $8mil at the Australian box office.
A newspaper columnist, Benjamin Mee took on the biggest challenge of his life when he purchased Dartmoor Zoo in 2006. Tragically Benjamin's wife Katherine, who was in remission from cancer, passed away a few months after purchasing the Zoo. Grief stricken, Benjamin and his two children Ella and Milo, turned this tragic loss into something truly inspirational, when they worked together to restored the Zoo and open it to the public. His amazing story was the subject of a 4 part television series Ben's Zoo and he also wrote a book about his experiences We Bought A Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo. Benjamin Mee still runs Dartmoor Zoo.
For more information, visit www.dartmoorzoo.org.
Question: Welcome to Melbourne!
Benjamin Mee: I was actually born in Melbourne, 47 years ago. I stayed here for 6 months after birth and then we went back. I came to explore my home country when I was in my 20's but this is the first time I've been back since then as the last time I came I only got to go from Sydney up to the Great Barrier Reef. I am so impressed at how vibrant the place is including the people and the confident modern architecture.
Question: When you first heard about the zoo being first sold, did you immediately choose to buy it or was it a longer process?
Benjamin Mee: I was looking for a big house for my Mum to live in with my sister (who now has six children) after my dad died - we were looking for a big place that needed some work and where a lot of people could live. The Estate Agent came across a big place with 12 bedrooms, 30 acres and 250 exotic animals. We thought it was crazy but made the mistake of actually going to visit the place and then we realised that if we didn't buy it, it was going to close and the animals would be destroyed.
The old guy that was selling the zoo had lived there for 40 years and he didn't want to sell it, he had too. He was a very cranky old guy and he'd had a lot of good offers over the years and he'd managed to spike every single one and he tried very hard to spike ours. We went into negotiations even though he didn't want to sell and I ended up talking not to him, but his sister who would talk to him and then call me back.
When we moved in I began to realise how hard it had been for the sister to negotiate with me, which took six months, over the phone. When we got to the 300-seater restaurant we began an inventory which included 300 knives and forks, 300 plates, 300 sauces and 7 cups. I asked "Where are all the cups?" and the man explained "Granddad would throw those at my Aunty right after she'd been on the phone to you!" There had obviously been 293 phone calls during the six month negotiation period!
In the film We Bought A Zoo it happens differently, he decides to buy a zoo and then the next minute his sitting at a table having bought the zoo; it actually was a much longer process which obviously had to be streamlined for the film.
Question: For those animal lovers who may want to buy a zoo; what is involved in running a zoo?
Benjamin Mee: It's not easy and I knew it would be harder than I thought and I was right! Every day there are new challenges and I had hoped most of my day would be around designing new enclosures and building things (I used to write a column on DIY) as I like to get my hands dirty. I also love animal psychology; my background includes writing a book about animal intelligence including dolphins, apes and elephants. I thought it would be nice to be able to plan an enclosure from an animal's perspective including what that animal would normally experience in the wild and creating an enclosure around that - although that is only 5% of my work.
Most of my day is worrying about meeting the payroll, paying bills, meeting regulations (which change) and a quarter of the maintenance team's time goes to Health and Safety. I actually have nearly actually broken my ankle twice on the yellow health and safety slip hazard signs - but you have to have them and it's about juggling all those different things. Many days I don't even see an animal; right at the end of some days I will go outside and go and say hi to the tigers to remind myself about what it's actually about.
Question: In the movie, there is a heart stopping moment towards the end during the inspection where the maintenance guy has to go and fix the lock in the lion cage - did that actually happen?
Benjamin Mee: The inspection was so nerve-racking and we've had two since because after one year you have another inspection to check it's all on the same course and then we've had another at four years.
That moment contains a couple of zoography abnormalities including the fact that you cannot go into a lion enclosure even if Scarlett Johansson is on the other side calling out "hey" to the lion. The lion will look and think Scarlett Johansson is on that side, he is on this side and woomph he'll kill him, no question, no pause. That stuff made us laugh because even Scarlett Johansson's charm wouldn't have worked on Zoloman - he would probably kill.
Question: How big is the zoo now and what types of animals are currently at the zoo?
Benjamin Mee: It's a 30 acre zoo with 250 creatures, 47 species and 13 of those are endangered. We have Lions, Tigers, European Brown Bears, Wolves, a Jaguar, White Neck Cranes, Otters and more; we have quite a selection.
Question: Can you talk us through how you go about feeding a Jaguar?
Benjamin Mee: The mechanism is that you lure him into a house with a small amount of food and shut the door, then you can go into the enclosure and clean out the area, check the fences and leave some big bits of food hanging up. We try and stimulate him by hanging the food up in the trees and moving it around, so it's never where he thinks it is. Then once it's safe, you let the Jaguar out.
It's very strange being inside an enclosure which 99% of the time if you go in there, you will die. Suddenly it is okay once the Jaguar is locked away and you can stand on these rock formations and you think 'In 5 minutes, he is going to be back in here'.
We have South American Tapir which have the long noses and you can go into their enclosure but they too will kill you, if they get upset. You have to make sure that the Tapir is not upset. They live in a huge 5 acre paddock and because they do know me quite well they'll let me scratch them on the neck and then they'll roll on their back because they're friendly but if they get spooked they will literally stomp you to death. The animal has been known to occasionally kill keepers if they make a mistake and are overconfident. A year ago I was in the field with a pregnant South American Tapir (she was a bit hormonal) and we were having our pictures taken and a huge hornet landed on her back and we were worried, we told the team to pack up their cameras and we organised to walk away towards the exit because if she had got stung and thought it was us then someone would have been seriously hurt.
Question: What did your children initially think about the fact they were living in a zoo?
Benjamin Mee: They thought I was mad when I was on the phone doing the enormously convoluted purchasing process for six months; they were aged 3 and 5 at the time and when they'd annoy me I'd say "shhh I'm trying to buy a zoo!" and they thought 'yeah, sure Dad!'
When we finally turned up, to move in, they thought they were on a day trip and they'd come to see Grandma who was already staying at this place. When night-time came and I'd shown them to their bedrooms they were thinking 'WHAT?'
It was quiet a scary place because it was so run down and it was properly dangerous as you'd get an electric shock off the water as the roof was leaking and there were rats in the house. I did think 'this is not such a safe place to bring little children'. When the children were out of my sight I would worry about the short wall that was separating the bears (on the other side was a 20ft drop so the bears can't get out) but you could totally get in and for the first six months all I could think was 'where are the kids?'
I have explained to them both very carefully about the fact that the animals are wild and now it's very safe. I explained that even the monkeys, if you put your finger through the cage, will bite them off. There is a book called the Life of Pi by Yann Martel which is about a boy who grows up in a zoo and his dad gets a goat and tethers it into the lion enclosure and then releases the lions which is a very vivid lesson for the kid and the father explains that it's not just the lions but all the animals. I never tethered a goat but I had the talk with them that every single creature in the zoo was wild.
Now, Milo is 11 and Ella is 9 and we get asked to do photo calls with animals often. There are these animals called Coatimundi and they're like racoons but very argil but again they could crush through your finger as they eat rats as well as vegetables but you can go in and feed them with grapes which are great for the photographers. You can't stroke them, you can brush your hand on them, if they can see your hand and they are happy for it, they'll eat from your hand but they're not domestic. A domestic cat has centuries of breeding to make it friendly, the same with a dog but a wolf and a dog is a total different thing. Again you can go in with the wolves but you have to have a stick; as long as the wolves can see that you're upright, you're okay; if you fell over and broke your ankle whilst in the wolves enclosure they'd have you, no question!
It's interesting as Milo can now feed the Coatimundi's on his own with a camera team and he'll explain not to touch and his not like a child with them as he is adjusted to the idea that they are not domestic.
Question: What were you're first thoughts when you found out your book was going to be adapted into a movie?
Benjamin Mee: I was amazed! I didn't think there was enough in the book because it's just our little story; all we did was buy a zoo! I have seen the film four times now at various premieres and the first couple of times it was quiet emotional in regards to my wife and the personal element to the story and by the third time I was able to distance myself and watch it as a film and I thought 'wow they bought a zoo, that's quiet cool! He didn't have to buy the zoo but he changed his life to save those animals'. I can now see why they've made it into a movie.
Question: What were the biggest changes in the film script from your own story?
Benjamin Mee: They moved the death of my wife so that it was less 'sad' because if you put the death in the middle of the film (where it actually happened) it may put people off going to see the film and everybody (including me) wanted people to go and see the film. I can understand why they made the film about recovery and regeneration of the family which is what happened after she died because we had to get out there and make the zoo work and that helped us, to an extent, overcome some of the immediate aftermath.
We originally bought the place for my mother to live in with extended family and she doesn't make it into the film at all but that would complicate the film further. It's important that the film was streamlined to fit into an hour and a half and loosen details.
I was very lucky to have Cameron Crowe as the director because he is such a humane, personal and nice man. I have also heard Matt Damon talk about the fact of bereavement as a family man and he talks so movingly about his perception of bereavement and how he would be if he'd lost his wife.
They've taken the central messages and themes of the book and run with them and made them brilliant as a movie. I've been lucky because as a comparison I read The Bourne Ultimatum and 0% of that story is in the film the only comparison is the fact that there is a character called Jason Bourne and he can't remember who he is, that's it and no other characters from the book are in the film.
50-60% of my story is made onto the screen.
Question: Did you actually have to kill a tiger, as seen in the film, We Bought A Zoo?
Benjamin Mee: Yes, totally. It happens fairly regularly that you have to make a massive decision similar to that. The tiger, Spar, was the only big cat we've had to euthanasia; in the wild tigers live 12 years and in captivity they live for 18-20 years and Spar was 19 when we got to the zoo and his back legs were much worse than in the film, his back legs were fused and he was limping; some vets said he was in pain and some vets said he wasn't in pain. What was undeniable was that when he lied down he was getting bed sores and that meant he couldn't get up, properly. I was receiving advice from all different people with different credibility's. I had an ex-zoo director help me with the whole process and he said "you need to shoot that tiger, because it's unsightly and the public won't like to see it" and I thought 'that's not a reason to shoot a tiger in my book' and Spar was our tiger, there was no way I was making an immediate decision. We had decided due to the bed sores we'd have to put him down and the tiger keeper, Kelly (who is a combination of several different people, in the film, one of whom is called Robert) had prepared herself for Spar to be euthanised on a particular day and I had cut my finger relatively badly on the day we'd discovered the bed sores, three days later my finger is really sore and bleeding whilst the bed sores had practically healed which made me realise that Spar had a really good immune system (better than mine) and I knew then he was not on deaths door. I didn't want to leap in and do it and I felt it was my position to not be bamboozled into anything. Finally a vet that I had faith in said "it's time" and so we did it.
One of the saddest creatures we had to euthanise was a Lamar called Douglas who was the friendless Lamar. Douglas would herd the bonkers Alpaca as they would follow Douglas as he was King of the Alpacas. One day Douglas fell and twisted his knee and he was fine apart from that but because you cannot fix his dislocated knee he had to be shot and we all went down to say goodbye to Douglas and it was very sad. It's hard with animals.
Animals have a shorter life span; wolves age till 10 or 11 and we've been at the zoo for 6 years and inevitably we've lost wolves and now we are going to get a pack of European Siberian wolves. One of the things that did help me when my wife died was seeing out the window that you're a part of the cycle of life as it goes on all around you; something dies and something is born. We're just animals and we've had this tragedy but so have they and they need us to be out there doing it all, it was a very therapeutic environment and it remains that especially because my kids are a part of the zoo now too.
Interview by Brooke Hunter and Fiona Tew
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Cameron Crowe
Genre: Drama, Family, Comedy
Running Time: 124 minutes
Benjamin Mee (Damon) is a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer who, as a single father, faces the challenges of raising his two young children. Hoping that a fresh start and a new life will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and buys an old rural house outside the city with a unique bonus feature: a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) and her dedicated team. With no experience, limited time and a shoestring budget, Mee sets out with the support of his family and the local community to reopen the zoo. Now, Benjamin is no longer just reporting an adventure story; he's living it in his own backyard.
Featuring an incredible musical score composed by Jónsi of the band Sigur Rós, the We Bought A Zoo Blu-ray is loaded with over 2½ hours of special features including 20 deleted and extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentary with Director Cameron Crowe, and more.
Blu-Ray Special Features:
"The Real Mee" Travel to Dartmoor Zoo for a heartwarming look at the real Benjamin Mee and his incredible family whose story inspired We Bought A Zoo
"We Shot a Zoo" Join the cast, crew and animals in this behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling their exciting journey filming We Bought A Zoo
"Their Happy is Too Loud" Director Cameron Crowe joins Composer Jónsi in the recording studio for a never-before-seen look at the making of the music for the film.Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy including theatrical film
Deleted & Extended Scenes
Photography Gallery"Elle's First Screen Kiss"
Audio Commentary with Director Cameron Crowe, Actor J.B. Smoove and Editor Mark Livolsi
We Bought A Zoo