My family was looking for a big run-down house, so that my mum could live with my brother, my sister and their children. My sister sent me the details for this amazing massive house, which I think had 13 bedrooms at the time. I turned over the page and there were three African Lions, seven Siberian tigers, a pack of wolves, bears, flamingos and more, all staring back at me. We thought it was insane, but just had to have a look.
It was incredibly run down and about to lose its operating licence. We didn’t think we would be the last people in a bidding war, where everyone else pulled out. The only other person with any interest was going to turn the house into a nursing home and almost all the animals would be destroyed.
We thought, ‘well, it’s worked before; with a bit of energy we can make it work ourselves!’ Fifteen years later, my children have grown up here – and they can’t imagine life anywhere else.
Of course, we had many challenges in the beginning; an escaped wolf which took two hours to dart and subdue, and a Jaguar that decided to jump into the tiger enclosure, where we discovered our dart gun didn’t work and no local zoos wanted to help – it was 17 hours until someone arrived with a dart gun from the West Midlands.
One of the biggest challenges was just getting the place rewired – it was a £100,000 cost which wasn’t in any of the budgets.
It would have been so easy to give up at so many stages, especially after my wife Katherine died shortly after moving here. We were in the middle of redevelopment and it was a real low point; I was in a cold damp house, with rats running around, heavy rain, no licence and large overheads. But if I had given up, it would have all been for nothing, so it was a case of trying for just one more day, then one more day after that, and carrying on from there – that was how we got through.
Where We Are Today
Now we are introducing new animals to Dartmoor Zoo, creating engaging and enriching experiences for our animals, plus developing our mental health, education, research and conservation programmes.
We have a Well-Being programme, where local GP’s can refer patients with mild depression or social exclusion via a ‘green prescription’. This helps them become part of a team, benefit from the fresh air and animals, learn new skills and join in with the laughter. This programme has also been extended to help sufferers of PTSD at a centre for rehabilitating Royal Marines and people who’ve come back from tours of duty.
We get these guys and girls – who can be difficult to engage with – to the zoo, put them in front of a jaguar and tell them the jaguar will go in to his house, while they construct a platform for him.
It’s extremely exciting being in a big cat enclosure knowing that your trust is in someone else, who you don’t know, and that one mistake would mean the jaguar will be there with you! Ex-service personnel are used to high adrenaline situations, which is why some go off the rails when they get back from tour. So, we are helping them positively channel their adrenaline in a safe (besides the jaguars!), controlled environment.
We see over 12,000 school children every year through providing education sessions at the Zoo, and also through outreach visits, where one of our team takes some of our bugs and reptiles to their school.
I love it when children who have never seen animals in real life before visit, and are able to touch some of them. It keeps that wonder in their eyes alive, and they often leave clutching a feather or a leaf as a memento of their day.
We have lots of masters and undergraduate students here who conduct various studies. We also have partnerships with Plymouth University, Duchy College and more.
Our research pod operates in conjunction with Plymouth University, where there is animal, human and biodiversity research being carried out, so we can make sure we’re doing our very best for our own environment, as well as the animals we care for.
In 2014, I donated the zoo to Dartmoor Zoological Society, which is when we became a charity, I am still heavily involved as the CEO and live on-site still, but we have a board of Trustees with their own unique skills, who oversee everything and assist with running the zoo. Being a charity helps secure the future of the zoo for generations to come, and means we can do even more critical charitable work to help save animal species from extinction!
WIN WIN WIN
With Dartmoor Zoo
In this edition of Quay Magazine, we’re offering you the fantastic opportunity to Win Tickets To Dartmoor Zoo for you and your family! Plus, you’ll receive A Signed Copy of We Bought A Zoo, so you can learn the full story of how Benjamin Mee bought a house with a zoo attached to it, then took on the responsibility of renovating the zoo so it could be open to the public again.
HERE’S HOW TO ENTER AND BE IN WITH A CHANCE OF WINNING THIS AMAZING PRIZE!
Tickets are for a family of four; two adults and two children only. Not to be used in conjunction with any other offer. Not available on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Tickets will need to be collected from Dartmoor Zoo, unless a Stamped Self-Addressed Envelope is sent to: Dartmoor Zoo, Sparkwell, Plymouth PL7 5DG. A signed copy of the book will be sent to the address supplied.