Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo tells the tale of a man (played by Matt Damon) who buys a rundown wild animal park and puts his heart and soul into reviving it. While the film is set in America, it's based on the true-life British tale of Benjamin Mee, who bought the rundown Dartmoor Wildlife Park near Plymouth in 2006, rechristened it Dartmoor Zoological Park and nearly went bankrupt while dealing with personal crises and attempting to ensure the animals were properly looked after, following years of neglect.
However there's a whole other story of what went on at Dartmoor Wildlife Park before Ben Mee arrived on the scene, when for years the zoo was the bane of some animal rights groups and the animals there nearly all had to be destroyed.
I went to Dartmoor Wildlife Park quite a few times as a child, and it wasn't quite like any other zoo I ever went to. The whole thing had a slightly homemade feel, with cages seemingly made of whatever they had lying around and a slightly cavalier approach to animal welfare and visitor safety (while the park never had an accident, many suggested this was more luck than judgement)
Indeed, although it got more visitor friendly, when I was very young you felt the owners would have been happier if they didn't have to open up the park to visitors at all. It felt a little like the private big cat collection of a man called Ellis Daw, and while it had other animals, the park prided itself on the number of different species of cat it contained, with lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and other cats all on display in what could only be described as rather outdated cages.
It was also home to the only literal bear pit I've ever seen. Visitors were pointed off the main path and onto a walkway that crossed over what was essentially a large concrete tank. Down below were the park's brown bears, living in a cramped pit with a concrete floor and very little to keep them entertained. They, like many other animals in the park, exhibited the extreme repetitive movements indicative of creatures given too little space and stimulation, with their environment literally sending them mad.
Over the years improvements were made, but these always seemed to be done in response to outside pressure, with Ellis Daw coming under scrutiny from animal rights groups over his bear pit and the living conditions of other animals, while the local council demanded upgrades and new enclosures for many of the big cats in order for the park to keep its license. The bears eventually got a whole field to live in, but for a very long time the damage done to them by their previous environment was clear, as despite the much larger space, they stayed in only a very small part of it, as if they simply couldn't comprehend being able to move around freely.
It was the only zoo I ever went to where you ended up feeling a little sorry for the animals, as it was clear a lot of them weren't doing well mentally, others lived in conditions that seemed unpleasant and cramped even to a child, and it was clear the whole place needs huge amounts of money and work to bring it into the modern day.
There was one other abiding memory I have of Dartmoor Wildlife Park as a child, and that's that every time you went, there seemed to be baby tigers that would be brought out on leads at various times during the day so that visitors could ‘aw' and ‘ah' at them. As a child I never even thought about it, but it was actually evidence of what became the major battle that took place before Ben Mee took over and massively improved things.
Due to dilapidated cages, animals exhibiting repetitive behaviour and Daw's rather outdated attitude to animal husbandry, Dartmoor Wildlife Park came to the attention of animal rights groups. While other parks made strides to breed endangered species, increase education and bring themselves into the modern day, Ellis Daw's place stayed closer the mind-set of the old menageries, and the owner didn't seem keen on anyone telling him what he should or shouldn't do with his animals.
Things became particularly intense in 2001 when the Captive Animals Protection Society issued a report criticising the living conditions of the animals and the quality of safety barriers, as well as calling for the zoo's license to be revoked. The local council was reluctant to remove the park's license, as it was unclear what would happen to the animals.
An investigation led to Daw being charged with 16 animal welfare offences, most of which were eventually dropped, although he was convicted of breeding tigers outside of an organised breeding programme and of keeping them in poor conditions. Daw's attitude was that Siberian Tigers were endangered and so any breeding had to be good, but legally breeding them must be done in an officially recognised programme to ensure bloodlines are properly mixed and the breeding stock is properly managed to ensure the future health of the species.
Daw had actually been breeding the animals off-show, with claims that after he was pretty much forced to take his bears out of their pit and give them a proper home, he moved tigers in, which were kept off-show and bred in small, cramped conditions (and once he bred them, few other parks wanted to take them, so they stayed at Dartmoor in unsuitable condition). Whether this was to ensure the supply of cubs that became the park's main attraction, I can't say, but looking back on it, it certainly appears that way. After the 2001 conviction, Daw was given a small fine and most of the tigers were sent to a refuge in Holland.
The fact that that majority of the animals at the park weren't part of any proper breeding programmes or stud books was also part of the reason why the local council was so concerned about the future of the animals if they revoked Ellis Daw's license. If an animal isn't officially registered and its parentage is unknown, it becomes difficult to bring it into a proper breeding programme, and therefore many of the Dartmoor Wildlife Park animals weren't of much use to other zoos, especially as many of them were old and exhibited repetitive behaviour.
This became a more pressing problem a few years later. While Ellis Daw survived the investigations and attacks from animal rights groups, and did indeed do some work to try and improve the animal's lives, a lack of money and his increasing age meant he decided to put the park up for sale. It proved a tough sale, with few people wanting to take on a park that had faced bad press and needed huge amounts of investment to improve the facilities for both the animals and the visitors – not to mention that it's not exactly on a main road, making it somewhat difficult to find. After 18 months looking for a buyer, Daw handed in his zoo license and the park had to close, with reports at the time suggesting if a buyer wasn't quickly found, many of the remaining animals would have to be put down, as most couldn't be rehoused.
It was a rather sad end for Daw, who claimed to have started the zoo after being appalled by the conditions animals were kept in during his childhood in the 1920s, and he wanted to give them more space to roam. However he ended up becoming the poster child for what he claimed to be against, largely because ideas about animal welfare outpaced both his attitudes and his wallet.
With the lives of the animals at risk, the plight of Dartmoor Wildlife Park went viral and soon there were expressions of interest from around the world, although most came to nothing. What the park needed was someone who had a bit of a vision and was prepared to take a huge risk, and that's where Ben Mee stepped in. Since he took over the park's name has been changed, it's reopened, huge improvements have been made for both the animals and visitors and it's a very different – and far better – place, where the animals seem a massively happier than they did before.
Mee's struggle is well worth making a movie out of as it's a fascinating story, but there's almost a whole other film to make out of what when on beforehand and the fate Ben saved the animals from.
We Bought A Zoo is in UK cinemas on March 16th.
Writer: Tim Isaac