Families, by definition, often have a zoo-like feeling to their relationships and interactions. However, this amazing family really has a zoo Ė and the steps they take to obtain and maintain the zoo - and still be a family - is quite remarkable.
Benjamin Mee is a pioneer of unusual lifestyles and funky personal choices. A specialist in animal behavior and once a columnist for the United Kingdomís Guardian (in the do-it-yourself field), he was living what to many would be an ideal life. He and his wife, Katherine, had sold their home in London and moved to the South of France with the idea of raising their family in the heart of an idyllic setting filled with relaxation, wine and homemade bread. So how on earth did he become part-owner of the Dartmoor Wildlife Park? Herein unfolds the tale.
Ben and his family, which besides his wife consisted of a six-year-old son (Milo) and a four-year-old daughter (Ella), a brother (Duncan) and a dynamic and hearty mother (76-year-old Amelia) were offered a rare opportunity to buy a deteriorating down-on-its-luck animal park. The indomitable Amelia was the first to hear about the 30-acre zoo for sale in Devon and, deciding she needed a change after the death of her husband of 57 years, roped Ben and her other four children into considering the purchase so that they could do something together as an extended family.
Each step of the way there were hazards Ė ones of major proportions. There was some family discord as Ben and his brothers and sister struggled with the idea of Mum giving up her comfortable 5-bedroom house on acreage in Surrey for a decrepit zoo and a 13-bedroom falling-down mansion dating back to the 1800s. In addition, there was concern about the financing of the zoo, which needed major renovations, re-staffing and re-stocking. There were 200 animals to begin with, and the familyís inexperience with hands-on zoo operation made every day both exhilarating and frustrating. Moreover, the roadblocks werenít over. Benís remarkable wife had suffered from a brain tumor while in France and had had it removed there. In Devon, the symptoms reasserted themselves, and the diagnosis was very poor. The house needed work to make it livable, but the zoo had to be the priority, for the animals living quarters were in dire need of immediate fixing. More work was needed in the restaurant, which was in such horrendous shape that food could not be served there until it was completely renovated. Even worse, the family had given themselves less than a year to complete necessary repairs before re-opening the facility.
Certainly this book is a testament to the strength of families, and to the honor and loves this particular family share. The tragedy of the death of Benís wife, Katherine, three months before the zoo was due to open is described in poignant words; the reader is constantly awed by Benís strength in going forward as a single dad, struggling against great odds to create a home not only for his human family, but for the tigers, bears and wolves in his domain. BBC2, one of Britainís public television stations, filmed and documented the whole process Ė which certainly must have added to the chaos and confusion of the course that Ben and his family had set for themselves.
The pictures, eight color pages, provide a lovely addition to the text, for they are personal and charming. The details - and Ben spares no punches - are remarkable as well, for the hurdles, both personal and professional, would have stopped others from even attempting to solve the plethora of problems. With indomitable personal and professional skill, a deep appreciation for wildlife, and a never-ceasing sense of humor, Ben has created a book for all ages to enjoy, and readers will find themselves wondering after completing the book how Ronnie the tapir is doing, and whether the tiger Tammy ever got used to men.