We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever by Benjamin Mee might be wish fulfillment for some readers–buy a run down property and restore it to become your dream home. If the property is a farm house in Tuscany, people will sigh and become slightly dreamy-eyed when you tell them about it. But what if the property is a private zoo in Devon?
Just a few years ago Benjamin Mee’s mother decided to sell her long time home, just a short drive from London in a very desirable neighborhood. The property was worth about 1.2 million pounds. One of Mr. Mee’s siblings then found an advertisement for a zoo with a large house on the property, acres of land, and 200 exotic animals including a substantial collection of big cats for sale for at just a bit over 1.2 million pounds. Why not buy the zoo, move Mom and the whole family into the big mansion and run it as a family business.
Mr. Mee was willing to consider it, his mother was interested, his wife was willing to go along, his siblings thought it could be a good idea, his kids thought he was joking but after quite a few rejected offers and long struggle to find a bank willing to loan them the money they needed to fix the zoo up the property was theirs. The story of how they adapted to their new lives among 200 wild animals and how they readied the zoo to open in just about six months makes for entertaining reading. Things do not go smoothly, one of Mr. Mee’s brothers turns against the plan and nearly ruins it, a jaguar escapes, and Mr. Mee’s wife suffers a terminal cancer. But once you’ve become responsible for the lives of 200 wild animals as well as the lively hoods of several dozen employees, you’ve nothing if not focus in your life.
Mr. Mee writes a Do-It-Yourself column for The Guardian and he is most at home when describing how to fix up some part of the zoo or another. He does give the reader enough of the animals and people involved to make them memorable, but he’s most clearly happiest when tools are in use. No one in his family had ever been involved with a zoo before, so their learning curve is very steep, and Mr. Mee does a good job taking his readers along for the ride. We learn all sorts of information about the animals and about zoos from how wolves form their social pecking order based on who gets to eat what part of the goat to how much a barrel of ale in the restaurant costs. It’s all actually very interesting. If you like the sort of program when two people fix up an aging deck just imagine reading about two people fixing up a dilapidated jaguar enclosure with a live jaguar inside it.
I never really gave zoos much thought before reading We Bought a Zoo, I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve been to, but I’m not a devotee of them by any means. I’m also not that crazy about DIY shows either, though I did watch Trading Spaces mainly to see how horrified people were when they saw what their friends had done to their bedrooms. However, I found We Bought a Zoo to be entertaining, informative and at times touching. If you’re looking for a summer read, I think you could do well to consider We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee.
You can find the website for the Dartmoor Zoological Park, the zoo Mr. Mee’s family bought here. They are open daily from 10 to 6 during the summer months and from 10 to 4 the rest of the year. If anyone has been there I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
I’ve slightly changed my mind about zoos since I first read and reviewed this book for my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. My opinion of this book still stands, but I’m more a an overall zoo skeptic at this point. I’m not opposed to them completely, but I’m inclined to look at them on a species by species basis.