Whenever I watch a movie that is particularly interesting, I sit through the credits until the bitter end, hoping for a glimpse of the words, "Based on the book by..." It has been my experience that if the film is good, the book will be better. And if it's a true story, well then I'm one happy reader.
Such is the case with We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee. You may remember the 2011 movie by the same name starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson. At the risk of spoiling either the book or the movie for you, let's just say screenwriter Cameron Crowe took a lot of creative license with Mee's story. You won't find a hunky widower making eyes at his demurely attractive yet hardworking and capable zookeeper, but you will find quite a compelling tale of a family who uses their deceased father's estate to purchase a downtrodden zoo in southern England.
Like most parents, I have visited my share of animal parks and aquariums; they're a fun and (hopefully) educational way to spend the day with your kids, but what does it take to actually manage one? The Mee family, having no proper training or real answers to this question, made a huge leap of faith in buying Dartmoor Animal Park and assuming the responsibility of keeping 200 exotic animals.
To say this life-changing adventure was challenging is clearly an understatement. The facility had been closed for some time and was in severe disrepair when the Mee clan arrived. Day by day, little by little, they worked and cleaned and learned and fell in love with their new "family," all the while hoping they could refurbish the zoo enough to someday re-open to the public. Would investing their father's entire life savings in this dream be a mistake? Or would they turn it around and save the iconic park and the animals who call it home?
I realize that this book is a memoir and therefore true, but I liked it because Mee's writing is very honest. He makes no bones about the fact that his family had clearly bitten off more than they could chew. In all the time I've spent taking my kids to zoos, I have never given much thought to details like veterinary care, signage, or where to procure enough meat and vegetables to feed such an array of appetites. Or just how often does a Code Red (animal escape) occur? What do you do when tranquilizer wears off too quickly in the middle of transporting a tiger to the dentist? Since reading this book I have a newfound respect for exotic animal facilities.
If you liked the movie, then you will love reading the real-life story. Even if you haven't seen the film, the book is an extremely interesting behind-the-scenes account of life as a zoo director. Whether you like to read about underdogs, nonfiction or up close encounters with exotic animals, you will not be disappointed with this unforgettable memoir.
Recommended by Priscilla Garvin