We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee

October 22, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): When Benjamin Mee decided to uproot his family and move them to an unlikely new home—a dilapidated zoo where more than 200 exotic animals would be their new neighbors—his friends and colleagues thought he was crazy. Mee’s dream was to refurbish the zoo and run it as a family business. The grand reopening was scheduled for spring, but there was much work to be done and none of it easy for the novice zookeepers. Tigers broke loose, money was tight, the staff grew skeptical, and family tensions reached a boiling point.

Then tragedy struck. Katherine, Ben’s wife, had a recurrence of a brain tumor, forcing Benjamin and his two young children to face the heartbreak of illness and the devastating loss of a wife and mother. But inspired by the memory of Katherine and the healing power of the incredible family of animals they had grown to love; Benjamin and his kids resolved to move forward, and today the zoo is a thriving success.


  • The book was well-written, and oftentimes funny and poignant. Mee’s background as a professional writer had a lot to do with this, I suspect.
  • I enjoyed most of the scenes that directly involved animals in some way. It was interesting to hear Mee talk about what it was like to come face-to-face with magnificent animals such as lions, tigers, and pumas. Even when sedated, there had to be an armed sentry standing by at all times. Scary, but wonderful.
  • Mee treated the sickness and death of his wife Katherine in a loving, respectful manner. She was mostly a background figure in this book, but the love shone through very clearly.
  • I liked Mee’s personal philosophy about saving animals. He didn’t turn to “culling” as the immediate answer. Instead, he looked for more humane ways to house his animals and extend their lives as long as possible.
  • They did it. Against all odds, the Mee family opened the Dartmoor Zoological Park and has it up and running. It might not be doing swimmingly in a financial sense (the website seems to contain more info about donations than about the actual park), but they did it.


  • There was so much attention given to the nitty-gritty involved in reopening the zoo: the endless financial hassles, meetings, evaluations, interviews, purchasing of hammers, nails, draw slides etc. That stuff was extremely boring. I think those pages would have been better spent talking about the family or the animals.
  • Anything involving their time in France felt boring and out of place as well. I guess Mee wanted to include some background information to set the stage for their decision to buy the zoo, but it didn’t really work to keep the narrative flowing.
  • I wanted to know more about the 76-year-old mother! Despite the fact that the zoo was bought largely from the proceeds of her home sale, the mother makes only a few cameo appearances (including at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Opening Day). It would have been nice to hear what the mother (or Mee’s other family members/business partners) thought about the goings on.


We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee is not your run-of-the-mill memoir. It works best when the animals and family are at the forefront, but lags when the author decides to go into great detail about rebuilding fences and filling out loan applications. The result is a rather uneven journey that is uplifting and dull by turns. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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