We Bought a Zoo – Benjamin Mee

A Review by Grace Heine

As they held us in their icy glares, we were impressed. Eventually, one of these vast, muscular cats yawned, flashed those curved dagger canines, and looked away. We remained impressed. We started back toward the house. The wolves began their eerie 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. It had been an incredible journey to get there. A new beginning, it also marked the end of a long and tortuous road, involving our whole family.” (from We Bought a Zoo, page 3)

Title: We Bought a Zoo
Written by: Benjamin Mee
Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Publication Date: September 1, 2008
Paperback: 272 pages

“Your dream scenario.” read the note attached to a real estate brochure for Dartmoor Wildlife Park. DIY column writer, Benjamin Mee, thought he was already living his dream-life but there was something about the broken down zoo which attracted him. After buying the zoo with money obtained from selling his parent’s twelve bedroom home, Benjamin, along with his wife, two children, brother Duncan, and mum, move into the house on Dartmoor Zoo’s property. They are thrown head first into a lion’s den of bankers, inspectors, runaway jaguars, greasy restaurant tables, animal dentists, angry porcupines, reporters and tranquilizer darts. They fight tooth and nail to reopen the zoo by Easter but they encounter setback after setback – including the death of Benjamin’s wife. The reopening date keeps being pushed further into summer and there are questions as to whether or not the zoo will ever open to the public again.

Allow me to spoil the end of this book for you – the zoo reopens.


You’re welcome.

Anyway, July 7th, 2018, marks the eleventh anniversary of the reopening of Dartmoor Zoological Park.

I’d love to say I planned this, but – as that would be lying – I won’t.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet We Bought a Zoo, the book which inspired the movie We Bought a Zoo which in turn inspired me to utterly dislike every movie with Elle Fanning in it (except Super 8 where I like the movie and dislike the character she played).


Because in the movie We Bought a Zoo, Elle Fanning plays a homeschooler – and that homeschooler was a week away from being a serial killer, locked in a psychiatric ward, or sporadically bringing out a blow torch and crisping a few zoo animals for fun.

There was something wrong with that child.

Just because someone is homeschooled does not automatically make them a future sociopath.

Anyway, I’m done berating the movie because that’s not what this post is about.

The book, We Bought a Zoo, is one of the most fascinating memoirs I’ve read. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s poignant, and it’s just plain cool.

They bought a zoo.

A zoo.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Not just anyone can buy a zoo. You have to have the right amount of money, love for animals, and insanity to purchase a rundown zoo and restore it to (and past) its former glory.

When reading the sections in Benjamin Mee’s memoir about animals you can feel how much he cares for all his four footed, two footed, talloned, winged, clawed, sabertoothed, furry, fuzzy, slimy, scaly, and/or sharp quill covered charges.

And, of course, his beloved orangutans (although the zoo hasn’t obtained any yet).

While the main focus of the book is the long and treacherous journey the Mee family took to reopen the zoo, this book is also about the beautiful life of Katherine Mee.

Before the Mees’ had ever heard of the Dartmoor Zoo, a French doctor discovered Katherine had several brain tumors. She immediately began getting treatment and after a time it appeared the tumors were gone. But in 2006 the tumors came back at full force and on March 31st, 2007, Katherine Mee died in her home, leaving behind two children: Milo (age 6) and Ella (age 4), a loving husband, and Dartmoor Zoological Park’s official logo.

Even though his wife was slowly deteriorating, Benjamin Mee was devoted to her until the end. As the tumor rendered more and more of her body useless, Katherine was unable do to simple tasks – such as going to the bathroom, plucking her eyebrows, or eating – without help, and Benjamin was by her side the whole time. So much so, that the zoo would have suffered greatly if Benjamin had not had staff so dedicated to restoring the zoo.

After reading so many fiction books where either the husband or wife has an affair, it was nice to be reminded that true love does exist.

Katherine’s death was an extra struggle piled on top of the zoo’s heavy debt, inadequate animal housing, unserviceable restaurant, and mutant wolves and jaguars who intermittently decided to escape the zoo.

Despite all these troubles, the zoo opened on July 7th, 2007, but as that date was already two months into “zoo visiting season” the revenue the zoo raked up was not enough to survive until the next summer. Only the release of a documentary miniseries about the zoo (a film crew followed the Mees’ around since their first tour of the zoo until the zoo’s grand opening) aroused the public’s interest once again. (To Watch the Show, Click: HERE)

As time wore on the zoo reached another financial crisis, but in 2011, a movie staring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson was released which helped the Darmoor Zoo stay afloat.

I recommend this book for anyone who likes a true-life underdog (under-jaguar?) story, or zoos. While there are some sections that deal with more adult themes, (think: gay animals, and animal surgeries) those sections can easily be skipped with no effect on the plot, making this book family friendly. (Benjamin Mee even puts – – in at the most offensive swear words.) I recommend (with discretion) this book for all ages.

For More Information about the Book and Author Click: HERE

For More Information about the Zoo Click: HERE

Age Range: 8 and up


Violence: The tapir pees on the electric fence and gets shocked. A lion with lung cancer is shot. Animals eat other animals. Animals fight. Ellis says he wants to behead a man and put the head on a pike(also has a coffin with the man’s picture in it in the zoo’s restaurant). Jaguar shot(many, many times) with a dart gun. Various other animals shot with dart guns. Description of carving animal carcasses. Benjamin is punched in the nose and loses two pints of blood. Benjamin loses thumb nail to a crowbar accident. Monkeys almost euthanized. Hanging severed bull heads for animals to eat. Katherine dies. Animal rights saboteurs, rotting/maggot-covered meat, animals dying, large “cats” that can carry off babies/fight whole dog packs/kill leopards, men dying of old age.

Sensuality: Discussions on animal mating, gay animals, and other sexual behaviors of animals. Female animals are spayed, and male animals are vasectomized. Low cut tops, and undressing ladies are mentioned.

Profanity: H–l, b—h, s–t, d–n, f–k, p–s, dumb a–, bloody, God’s name is taken in vain. The two times Benjamin Mee crossed out the words himself were: “It’s a _____ing puma.” and peac—.

Other(drugs/alcohol): Lots of people drink. After Katherine dies, Benjamin starts to drink heavily. Katherine has an incurable brain tumor. The book discusses the moral aspects of zoos. Vampires, evolution, animals attacking people, vomiting, divorce, constipation, wheeler-dealers, war/killing men during a war, feces, wicker man, depression, Nazis, and being shot at are mentioned.

Personal Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Cleanness Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Grace Heine is a sixteen-year-old wanna be writer who spends most of her time reading, writing, playing piano, or finding clever ways to be unproductive. You can visit her book review blog here.

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