Benjamin Mee had carved out a nice, little life for himself and his family in the south of France, when an opportunity to buy a English zoo that had seen better days came to his attention. His first attempt to purchase it fell through, but about a year later, he was contacted again to see if he was still interested. With the help of his mother and siblings, Benjamin finally made this family dream a reality, even though nearly everyone around them thought they were crazy. There was a lot of work ahead of them to refurbish the zoo and get it up to code, so that they could regain their zoo license. They set the grand re-opening for the next spring, several months later, but in the meantime, big cats broke loose, money was nearly running out, and there were tensions brewing among the staff. Then Benjamin's beloved wife, Katherine, experienced a reoccurence of a brain tumor that she had previously fought and won. This time, though, that was not to be the case. In the face of tragedy, he had to carve out time to grieve while still working non-stop to keep their dream for the zoo alive. Armed with Katherine's memory and the healing power of the animals, they finally managed to get their zoo up and running, making it a resounding success.
I've had We Bought a Zoo on my TBR list for some time now. Generally being a sticker for reading the book before watching the movie, I finally decided to pick it up for a book-to-movie reading challenge I'm working on. It ended up being a good read. It's the story of a British man and his family who decided to buy an old, broken-down zoo and revitalize it. I can't quite decide if Benjamin Mee is very brave, a little crazy (in a good way), or both. I think it probably requires some of both to take on a project of this magnitude. It would be daunting enough to purchase a zoo that was in good working order and didn't have any major problems. Taking on one that's been going downhill for years and has already lost its zoo license because of its decline is a monumental task even for an experienced zoo director, let alone one who's never done anything like this before. I have to commend Mr. Mee and his family for taking such a risk, and then pouring so much love and energy into it. Not to mention, the bulk of the work was undertaken both during his wife's unsuccessful battle with brain cancer and immediately after her death, which made it all the more impressive. At least he had his mother, brother, and children there supporting him (although his kids were quite young at the time), along with moral support and some financial support from two other siblings, so it was really a group effort. But still, it had to have taken some serious nerve, along with boundless fortitude and energy to succeed in their endeavor. And succeed they have. It's been ten years since this book was written, but I looked up the website and found that the Dartmoor Zoo is still going strong and looks great, so kudos to the Mee family for making their dream a reality.
As for the book itself, it mainly chronicles the time from when they first got wind of a zoo being for sale and started thinking about possibly buying it, all the way up to the opening day of the new, revamped park. It was quite the journey to getting there with lots of bumps and hiccups along the way, not to mention the major tragedy of Mr. Mee losing his wife, but it seems to have been an immensely rewarding one. For me, the most interesting parts, and what I thought were the strongest parts, were the individual stories of the various animals, as well as some of the more personal details of his wife's illness, more so than the business woes. However, I admit that was also part of the overall story of how the zoo came to be. It's just that IMHO, sometimes the narrative was a bit meandering, and didn't always seem to follow a linear path. This meant there were some sections that held my attention better than others. Overall, though, as a huge animal lover, I enjoyed the book, and I think others like myself probably will, too. However, as much as I love animals, it has also proven to me that I definitely don't have what it takes to be a zoo director.:-) I'll leave that to the Mees and others like them, and simply visit whenever I get a chance. In fact, if I ever make it across the pond, I just might have to put the Dartmoor Zoo on my itinerary.
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