Author interview: Benjamin Mee
11:18 08 July 2008
WHEN zoo owner Benjamin Mee found himself face to face with a savage Siberian tiger, he thought his time was up
When zoo owner Benjamin Mee found himself face to face with a scared and savage Siberian tiger, he thought his time was up.
The writer, who gave up an idyllic life in the south of France to buy a dilapidated zoo in England in 2006, and who was the subject of the BBC Two documentary series Ben's Zoo last year, laughs as he recalls his close encounter with Tammy the Tiger.
She had been given insufficient anaesthetic and woke up while Benjamin and five other zoo staff were carrying her on a blanket to a vehicle for relocation.
"That was right up there with the scariest moments you'll ever encounter," he recalls. "The first sign was her tail, which started moving and then wrapped itself tightly round someone's leg.
"Then she just stood up, right out in the open, scattering people like gunfire in a shopping centre."
His life changed in October 2006 when he and his brother, Duncan, bought Dartmoor Wildlife Park with their father's inheritance and a £500,000 loan for the sake of future animal conservation.
"We are an animal-mad family brought up on Gerald Durrell," he explains. "I always had it in the back of my mind that I'd live in Africa, driving a Land Rover around with a lion on the top. I never quite got to that."
Ben, 43, a former bricklayer and DIY columnist, had no previous experience of running a visitor attraction or looking after animals but persuaded his family - including wife Katherine, two children, Milo and Ella, and his mother - to join him in his quest.
But while he was dealing with a plethora of problems, including escaping animals, warring monkeys, licensing problems, staff bickering and financial dire straits, he was also suffering a massive personal crisis.
Only three months after taking over the zoo, the family discovered his wife was dying from the recurrence of a brain tumour which had been removed several years earlier. He lovingly cared for her as she lost her power of speech and movement, until she died in March 2007 aged 40, just four months before the zoo re-opened.
"Personally, it's been a really horrible disaster," he says now. "She died just over a year ago and I'm still struggling with it. I knew the tumour would come back. You were only supposed to live 10 months to a year with that type of tumour and she'd lived for two-and-a-half years."
He has now written We Bought A Zoo, which charts the story of him taking over the zoo and also the tragedy of his wife's death.
The children, now aged seven and five, have coped amazingly well with the death of their mother, he reveals. "They've coped better than me. They are just so resilient and adaptable. The other day I found an old DVD of clips the camera crew had taken of Katherine.
"I showed it to the kids, who were delighted and have taken it into school. They wanted everyone to see that they had a mummy and this is what she was like. There were no tears, they thought it was great. But I found it very difficult to watch."
In the last year all the money raised at Dartmoor Zoological Park has gone back into the attraction, along with the £300,000 advance Ben received from his publishers. The film rights have also been optioned by American movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
"The interest is in the eccentricity of the story, but realistically my wife died in the middle of it and as a story that human angle is what people are interested in. We had this awful tragedy which caught people's attention."
One of the names rumoured to be up for the role of Katherine is Julia Roberts, he reveals. "She's a very good actress but is not beautiful enough to play Katherine," he says.
And who would play Benjamin?
"It's got to be Brad Pitt, hasn't it?" he jokes.