The Mee family at their zoo
As retirement living options go, it might not be the first to spring to mind. Amelia Mee is almost certainly unique in choosing to live closer to more Class 1 dangerous animals than any other woman in the country – perhaps the world. Nearly 20 of them live not much further than a paw swipe away from her 12-bedroom Georgian manor house on the fringe of Dartmoor.
Following the death of her husband in 2005, Amelia sold the family home in Surrey and bought a zoo – complete with 200 animals, including Zak (a wolf with a swollen testicle), an arthritic (and incestuous) tiger called Spar, Ronnie the homosexual tapir and the magnificent Sovereign… a brooding and exceptionally cunning jaguar whose powerful jaws could crush a human skull as easily as a pumpkin in a vice. And not forgetting Fudge, the oldest female brown bear in the country, with a tooth abscess the size of a golf ball. What more could any 76-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 12 want in a sumptuously appointed home in the Devon countryside?
Since the purchase was completed in late 2006, the story of Amelia and her family has become the subject of a bestselling book We Bought a Zoo by her youngest son Benjamin, a BBC Two documentary series called Ben’s Zoo, and now a Hollywood film based on the book starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. So how does it feel to be a celebrity at the age of 82 (but looking at least a decade younger)?
‘I’ve never really given it much thought,’ she replies ruminatively. ‘For a while it was a bit strange being filmed by the TV crew whenever I came into the kitchen in the morning, but I’d just chat away and they’d follow me around saying “Fantastic!”. Everything I did was filmed. Not that I minded at all.’
And what of the Hollywood film, which in the way of all things Hollywood has relocated the story to sunny San Diego rather than shoot in the wilds of the windswept West Country? A suspicion of a frown briefly clouds her normally sunny disposition.
‘When I was in the eye hospital recently someone asked me if I was related to that “famous film star up at the zoo”. I replied, “That’s my son Benjamin you’re thinking of. He’s not famous and he’s not a film star. That’s Brad Pitt who plays him in a film about the zoo.” Except I meant to say Matt Damon.’
When 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to Benjamin’s book, the family didn’t really expect the plot to remain wholly faithful to the original story, and unsurprisingly it hasn’t, but Amelia expresses some disappointment that her character has been written out completely.
‘After all, I bought the zoo. My son runs it, but I’m the one it belongs to. But the book was bought to make a film of the story – they just didn’t want to make our story. At first they said I was going to be played by Judi Dench, which was nice, but then she wasn’t available. And there aren’t too many actresses in their late Seventies who could have stepped in. But I’ve spoken to people who’ve seen it and they say it’s a lovely story, but at the end of the film it was supposed to say: “This story is based on Dartmoor Zoo, Sparkwell, England” – and apparently it doesn’t.’
The purchase of the zoo didn’t always proceed smoothly. Her daughter Melissa had first spotted that it was for sale, and it seemed to meet most of the criteria for Amelia’s future plans. (‘Mum, it’s an omen!’ she told her unconvinced mother.) The idea was that Amelia would sell the former family home near London, and buy somewhere big enough for the whole family to live together. And although they hadn’t bargained on a zoo being part of the package, it was an added attraction and a challenge that they eagerly agreed to undertake as it might provide a living for those of Amelia’s children and grandchildren who wanted to be part of it.
But with no previous experience of running a zoo, the family’s initial offer was rejected as unrealistic by the vendor’s advisers. Then, unexpectedly, the property came back on the market – with the Mee family as the former owner’s preferred bidder.
‘He was the same age as me, and he liked my boys and our ideas about keeping it natural,’ Amelia recalls. But then, when everything seemed to be falling into place, her second son Henry, the co-executor of his father’s will, got cold feet.
‘He suddenly decided that what we were doing was irresponsible and that we were frittering away my husband’s money on something downtrodden and too risky. He was trying to protect us, but the others couldn’t forgive him because he was making it as difficult as possible to buy the zoo and using up money in the will on lawyers to stop the purchase. By the time we got here all the money had melted away and we had barely enough to feed the animals. He didn’t speak to any of us for five years, apart from my other son Duncan, although I did get a Christmas present from him this year. He’s a very sensitive boy.’
As Amelia talks, Solomon the African lion periodically exercises his vocal cords and reminds us how near his enclosure is to her home. Is the proximity of so many dangerous animals ever a source of anxiety? ‘No, not at all!’ she retorts passionately. ‘I love to see them and hear the noises they make – especially Solomon’s roar. And I do like the wolves howling at night. Some people over the valley complain that the animal noises frighten their children, but what do they want me to do? Put a bandage round their jaws?’
The former pottery teacher discovered an affinity with big cats when she visited a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia about ten years ago and entered the lions’ enclosure with just a teenaged keeper for protection. ‘For some reason, I wasn’t frightened and I felt I could stroke them. Benjamin was terrified that something would go wrong, and repeatedly warned me that they were very, very dangerous animals. But I just thought of them as big pussycats, and I think they could sense that I had no fear.’ Now she visits her own big cats every day and helps with the feeding, although – at the keepers’ insistence – from behind a heavy-duty wire mesh.
But she confides that her immediate reaction when she first saw the zoo and the house was ‘let’s go somewhere else’.
‘I’d only gone to be polite. I was absolutely devastated when my husband died; I was heartbroken and not in the mood for going to look at a zoo. It was a wet, windy day and Melissa, who was pregnant, almost vomited from the smell in the house where chickens and fish were being cut up for the animals. But somehow we eventually bought it. The money went from computer to computer. Then we got some extra investment for improvements to the enclosures. And now here I am in this big house where I can play the piano as loud as I like.’
The family ‘co-living’ idea never quite came to fruition. Benjamin lives with his two children in a cottage next door, and Amelia has ten empty bedrooms, except on the frequent occasions when family and friends visit.
‘Have I had any regrets? To be absolutely honest sometimes I have had, because it’s hard work. And it would have been nice if the whole family could have been here together. Sometimes I hear people walking past the front saying, “Oh, look at that lovely house – I’d love to live there,” and I’m thinking, “Come in and see the damp. In winter it’s so cold.”’
Not that she’s too downhearted. The animals are now healthy and well looked after, the zoo has been extensively improved and is well-staffed, the money is coming in, Benjamin is doing great things in research and conservation, and Amelia is happy greeting a growing number of visitors. The original plan might not have worked out quite as she’d hoped, but she insists that now she couldn’t imagine leaving.
‘I would miss the keepers and staff who work here, and I’d miss a lot of the animals. They do know me and they respond to me, especially Les and Kiruna, the lynxes. I’m dying for them to have babies!’
Despite the empty rooms in her rambling mansion, Amelia has finally got her family around her. It’s just not quite the one she had in mind.
For more information about the zoo, visit www.dartmoorzoo.org. We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee (Harper Collins, £8.99) - buy this book at a discount at Saga Books. The film of the same name was released in the UK on March 16.
This story is from Saga Magazine: for more great reads like this