The zookeeper whose moving personal story inspired the Hollywood film “We Bought a Zoo” says he now needs to fill a £1.6 million hole to stop his struggling park going.
In the 2011 film, which starred Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannsen, a widower buys a failing zoo despite having no experience caring for animals and rebuilds it as a successful business.
The film, directed by Cameron Crowe, was based on Benjamin Mee’s book, also entitled “We Bought a Zoo”, which recounted his personal experiences in bringing Dartmoor Zoo to life.
But despite a wave of interest in Mr Mee’s project in the wake of the film, Dartmoor Zoo has struggled and now he desperately needs £1.6m to keep it alive.
He said: “The film didn’t help us financially.
“We got a little bit of money which took us through the winter of 2010-2011. What it really did was put us on the map.”
At the time of the film’s release it was hoped that profits from the movie might help to keep Dartmoor Zoo afloat. Now three years down the line, Mr Mee said the zoo was still struggling.
Although Mr Mee said the zoo was not at threat of imminent closure, its long-term future was at risk unless donors stepped forward for a new crowdfunding campaign to allow it to convert to a charitable organisation focused on research and education.
Mr Mee said: “It’s not losing a huge amount of money – people still come here because they’ve seen the film. But it’s not making enough to grow, either.
“At the moment, the zoo is at risk.”
Mr Mee, 49, obtained the business in 2006 after his mother sold her house to buy the underperforming tourist spot in Sparkwell on the southern edge of Dartmoor.
He moved there with his late wife Katherine, and his children Ella, now 11, and Milo, 14. Katherine died of a brain tumour aged 40 just four months after they took the property on.
Mr Mee said his priority remains with the 250 animals for which Dartmoor Zoo is home.
He said: “Back in 2006 nobody wanted to buy the zoo because it was so run down. The next guys in line from us to take it on wanted to destroy all the animals and build a nursing home on the site.”
Mr Mee said it was now down to the public to make a difference and back his hard work.
He said: “I like the idea of crowdfunding because lots of people all over the world can make a small contribution. It really makes a difference.”
Dartmoor Zoo’s crowdfunding campaign, which ends on December 22nd, has only raised 20 per cent of its target amount of £1.6 million.
To support the campaign visit www.dartmoorzoo.org.uk.
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