Already a BBC documentary miniseries and excerpted in the Guardian, We Bought a Zoo is a profoundly moving portrait of an unforgettable family living in the most extraordinary circumstances. This touching memoir is set to be a major motion picture starring Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon, in theaters December 23, 2011.
When Benjamin Mee decided to uproot his family and move them to an unlikely new home—a dilapidated zoo in the English countryside where over two hundred exotic animals would be their new neighbors—his friends and colleagues thought he was crazy. But Mee’s dream was to refurbish the zoo and run it as a family business. So in 2006, Mee, his wife and two children, his brother, and his 76-year-old mother moved into the Dartmoor Wildlife Park. Their extended family now included: Solomon, an African lion and scourge of the local golf course; Zak, the rickety alpha wolf, a broadly benevolent dictator clinging to power; Ronnie, a Brazilian tapir, easily capable of killing a man but hopelessly soppy; and Sovereign, a jaguar and would-be ninja, who devised a long-term escape plan and implemented it.
The grand reopening was scheduled for spring, but there was much work to be done and none of it easy for these novice zookeepers. Tigers broke loose, money was tight, the staff grew skeptical, and family tensions reached a boiling point.
Then tragedy struck. Katherine Mee, Benjamin’s wife, had a recurrence of a brain tumor, forcing Benjamin and his two young children to face the heartbreak of illness and the devastating loss of a wife and mother. Inspired by the memory of Katherine and the healing power of the incredible family of animals they had grown to love, Benjamin and his kids resolved to move forward. Today the zoo is a thriving success.
Benjamin Mee's We Bought a Zoo oscillates between being a hilarious tale of a family managing a shabby zoo in Southwest England and a truly heart-wrenching story about love and personal loss.
The Mees decide to pool their assets to buy Dartmoor Zoological Park (formerly Dartmoor Wildlife Park) on what seems to be an earnest whim. While lawyers and bankers prattle over the fine print, Benjamin has another very serious problem to deal with: his wife, Katherine, is dying of brain cancer.
Narrator Gildart Jackson displays a range well-suited to Mee's own voice. He makes sure that the funny parts stay funny, while also delving fully into the sadder aspects of the story. When Mee is tasked with moving a deadly big cat from an enclosure to a nearby van, Jackson imbues his performance with equal parts anxiety and absurdity. Contrarily, there is nothing but real pain in his voice when he recounts an intense period of Katherine's rapidly deteriorating health.
We Bought a Zoo is less about the animals than the people involved with Benjamin Mee's purchase and the upkeep of this life-altering family business. There are the previous owners, who are quirky and unmovable in their strange demands. There's also a parade of zoological professionals (curators, veterinarians, handymen, and keepers) woven seamlessly into the fabric of the tale. Mee, his children, his wife, and his extended family provide balance to a saga that has more than its share of madcap moments, mainly provided by the crafty escapes of numerous dangerous animals.
Most of all, the book is a reminder that hope can be found in unlikely places - in this case, a rundown zoo. By opening day, it's obvious that it was in fact worth all the trouble. Gina Pensiero
“Charming throughout, and touching as well.” (New York Daily News)
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