Alison Barclay meets the Melbourne-born man behind hit movie We Bought A Zoo.
IN 2006 British journalist Benjamin Mee and his family bought an ailing zoo in south-west England. His book about how the Mees restored Dartmoor Zoological Park was snapped up by Hollywood director Cameron Crowe and became the hit movie, We Bought a Zoo, with Matt Damon playing the restless widower determined to make a new life for his two children. On a visit this week to his native Melbourne – his first since 1965 – Benjamin spoke with Alison Barclay.
How did you come to be born in Melbourne?
My dad was working here for Ford. My mother doesn’t remember the hospital, but apparently she could smell bushfires; 1965 was a big year for that. We left when I was six months old and I was brought up in Surrey [England] in the house my mother sold to pay for the zoo. This is my first visit to Melbourne and I’m really impressed by how vibrant the city is. I love the modern architecture. There’s a real sense of confidence in the design of things. I’ve heard this is the place to come for restaurants; certainly the places I’ve been taken to are probably world class.
Has the film’s success ensured your zoo’s survival?
We are not in the clear yet by a long way. I just got a monumental tax bill. We did not get a huge amount from selling the rights to the story, but the publicity is what we needed. We made a series called Ben’s Zoo, which has run on Australian television, and every time it’s screened we get people travelling halfway around the world to take part in our Keeper for a Day program.
My children (Milo, 11 and Ella, 9) have lived there half their lives now. After the death of my wife, Katherine, they’ve had the compensation and the huge stimulation of living in this environment. But it has been hard. We haven’t had any money...yet at the end of the evening, they get to coo at the tigers – and that is an experience you can’t buy.
What was the zoo like when you arrived?
It was very run down, smelly, rats everywhere, and there was quite a sinister feeling about the place. That is one of our proudest achievements — we have changed the atmosphere. The animals look healthier and happier, and visitors have remarked on what an improvement we’ve made.
Your wife died soon after you bought the zoo. Did she have a chance to enjoy it?
We arrived in October 2006. Her brain tumour re-emerged and she died on March 31, 2007. Most of the time I was caring for her inside the house, but I used to take her in the wheelchair right to where the tigers came up to the fence. Even though by then she could not speak she was incredibly impressed with these creatures. We had a visit from another lady who could not speak; she left us a bequest in her will to pay for a new monkey enclosure. That’s the amazing thing about this place, it revitalises people. It’s soothing for humans because grass and trees and water are the environment we evolved in.
Your first offer to buy the zoo was rejected because you had no zoological background. How did you seal the deal?
The old guy who owned it was very cantankerous and spent five years putting it on the market and then spiking every sale. [A year after our first offer] it came up again. I knew if we didn’t get it, a lot of the animals would be destroyed. Eventually I found his sister Maureen [and asked her] to mediate. When we got there, in the zoo’s 300-seat restaurant, only seven cups were left. His grandchildren said, ‘‘Granddad used to hurl them at Maureen after she had spoken to you.’’
Do you like Matt Damon’s portrayal of you?
I like to think he is exactly accurate. Matt Damon makes me look very reasonable and even-tempered, and with hair, which is very strange.
Benjamin, as played by Matt, has a simmering romance with keeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Did that happen in real life?
That is entirely for dramatic purposes. I’m not romantically involved with any of our staff, but I have to say our staff breeding program is doing better than many other animals’. Two couples have formed and they’ve gone on to have babies.
What has been your scariest animal encounter?
The scariest was when a tiger stood up under anaesthetic. There were eight of us carrying her, and she just stood up. Everyone else ran. I was holding her head and my hand was right next to her mouth, and I thought: If she wakes up now, my hand is gone.
What’s next for you and the zoo?
We are on the cusp of getting some zebras and tamarind monkeys. The council has told me I can’t have elephants, but I say we will, perhaps in 10 years, and orang-utans too. I’m also writing a second book. I’m hoping to write the screenplay, because the screenwriter for this film got 15 times what I got for writing the story, for one quarter of the words!
We Bought a Zoo is available now on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (RRP $34.95).