I once interviewed a little girl who lived in a run-down trailer. Her family faced every kind of economic and social deprivation you can imagine, yet she was bright and cheerful with a cherished plan for her adult years.
“I’m going to have a job that has to do with rescuing animals,” she confided in me.
Of course, in Mee’s case it may seem that he was living a dream before the zoo ever came to his attention. He and his wife and two small children had just settled into an idyllic existence in the south of France where Mee was working as a freelance writer.
But when he and his mother and brother hear of a dilapidated zoo for sale in the English countryside, they can’t resist buying it (12-bedroom run-down mansion included) and fighting to turn it around, thus saving its 200 wild animal occupants from euthanasia.
Remarkably enough, the Mees succeed, although not without plenty of challenges, most tragically the loss of Mee’s wife, Katherine, to cancer. Fortunately for Mee, restoring the zoo proves cathartic and he is saved along with the animals.
It’s a lovely, true story but, unfortunately, as narrated here, not a sufficiently moving one. Mee writes of the love of animals that pushes him through his grief, but we read this without feeling it.
The animals seem a fascinating lot indeed. They include Ronnie the tapir, a “Class 1 dangerous animal,” but actually a total softie who melts when scratched; Kevin the boa constrictor, who loves to have his chin stroked while giving you a big, slippery hug; Sovereign the escape-artist jaguar; and Fudge, the brown bear with dental problems.
Yet we’re given little chance to truly connect with them either. Much of “We Bought a Zoo” is a mass of detail about less interesting aspects of buying and running a zoo (although occasional riffs about animal escapades do entertain.)
The good news is that the Dartmoor Zoological Park appears to be thriving and was featured in a four-part BBC documentary. Perhaps Mee will write again someday about his zoo (and its mission to nurture endangered species).
It’s a story that many might thrill to if the true stars – the animals – were given a chance to shine more brightly.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.