PUBLISHED: 09:00 14 March 2014
He's the man whose tale was turned into a Hollywood movie, but that's just the first instalment of an amazing story, as ALEXIS BOWATER discovers
Photography by Matt Austin
"I saw a dolphin and I thought it was intelligent and that it was empathising in some way"
I am kneeling in leaf mould on a darkening Dartmoor winter’s afternoon as a 150kg tiger licks the palm of my hand.
As unforgettable life experiences go it soars past the Kilimanjaro summiting, the swimming with dolphins, the cradling a lion cub adventures that I’ve previously had.
Benjamin Mee, the owner of Dartmoor Zoological Park is beside me. He’s laughing.
We have been on a tour of the park and I’ve been watching as he plays hide and seek with the male tiger. Ben has been larking about, hiding in brambles and jumping up outside the enclosure while the big cat eyes him.
Benjamin’s Top Ten Things About Devon
1. Lush vegetation.
2. Rolling hills.
3. Incredible rivers.
4. It’s a long way from London. Other parts of the country have an ID crisis, and want to be more like London. Devon doesn’t.
5. You’re never far from a beach, and beach culture.
6. Honest, no nonsense, practical people.
7. Crafts culture, living landscape. Dry stone walls.
8. Dartmoor ponies managing the moor.
9. Fresh food.
10. Plymouth University. A vibrant, forward-looking, world class institution enhancing the city and the region.
Then I see something so totally unexpected, an animal interaction so alien in nature that I rush forward, video running, to get a better look.
“Ben, is she licking your hand?” I ask, incredulously. And she is. The female tiger has come over and is doing just that. It gets more exciting.
“If you put your hand up,” he says, demonstrating, as if it is completely normal to put any part of your nice warm chewy body anywhere near one of the planet’s most powerful predators. “Go on,” he says, “You do it”.
And I, fool that I am, do - but tentatively and a good few inches away from the only millimetres thick fence.
Milo’s ‘Top Ten Things You Don’t Know About My Dad’
1. My dad is one of the oldest known living organisms (even if he was born in 1965).
2. He used to be a bricklayer.
3. He studied martial arts and has a black belt.
4. He was expelled from school three times.
5. He was born in Australia during a bush fire.
6. He is the second youngest in a family of five.
7. He had hair. Once.
8. He makes a really good omelette.
9. He can hear almost nothing you want him to and everything you don’t want him to.
10. He is almost blind.
He gently pushes my hand towards it. And suddenly my palm’s being exfoliated by the raspy tongue of an animal I should never, ever, be within 20 feet of.
I don’t know if it’s adrenalin or fear, but to nick a phrase from Billy Elliot: “It feels like electricity.” It is a profound educational experience on a very visceral level.
It’s also forbidden and only permissible because I am being closely supervised, very much a ‘don’t try this at home’ moment. We check with the council safety officer to see if I can even write about it. He says only if we make it clear that customers must never try the same thing.
For The Dartmoor Zoological Park is an evolving centre for education and learning that is accessible to everyone, of any age, on every level.
I’ve been visiting this place, on and off, for 15 years now and saw the zoo in its most difficult and troubled times under the previous owner.
But now, transformed, it has a feel of purpose, of burgeoning and powerful intellect, an outdoor university for students with enthusiastic herds of them all around conducting research. A place of big ideas.
And it is driven by this man, Benjamin Mee, a scientist and journalist, who earlier this year received an honorary PhD from Plymouth University for services to science.
No wonder. What drives him is a fundamental desire to share his understanding of a sometimes complicated subject, to get people to say: “Wow, this is amazing.”
He wasn’t always this academic. But something was triggered deep in the heart of a 17-year-old punk rocker, expelled from a few schools with only 3 ‘O’ levels to his name as he stood one day eyeball to brown eyeball with a tank-trapped cetacean.
“I saw a dolphin and I thought that it was intelligent and that it was empathising in some way,” says Dr Mee. “I remember that that just triggered it and thinking: ‘Why is he so clever?’.”
And that epiphany catapulted him back into education - and science. The hunt for empathy in animals was on. And that’s what really shines out now about this man, and this place: education. It’s a great adventure good not only for visitors and the local community but of titanic benefit to the global community too.
Enchanting to discover too that the man who bought a zoo, who was played by a Hollywood star, who embodies strength in adversity having lived, and loved, and lost, whose back story covers very serious themes indeed is also extremely funny. Proper, laugh out loud funny.
This is someone who has watched from the wings of smoky theatres as stand-up comics honed their trade – and, typically, forensically examined it, dissecting it with a scientist’s eye.
“Humour is a life-long interest of mine,” he admits. “Humour and laughing evolved from an appeasement call from which everything changes. It is a game-changer. The P300/N400 brainwave shows the difference between what you got and what you were expecting.” I am struggling to keep up at this point. He’s so sharp he could slice bacon. I’ll never look at a knock knock joke in the same way again.
But I will look out for his four new books in the pipeline. Particularly the one on dolphin humour. And the one about man being an aquatic ape. I wonder if they could be combined into a Jimmy Carr/Jacques Mayol mash-up but I can’t work out the punchline.
There is too, of course, a follow up to the blockbuster I Bought A Zoo. Will it be a happy resolution for Ben and his two children Milo and Ella? Those who have seen the film want a real life romantic ending of course. Does he find Scarlett Johansson hidden under a granite rock, near Sparkwell? We’ll have to wait and see. But whatever happens there exudes a dynamism and energy from him and his remarkable team that can drive nothing but positive change.
As I leave he shows me some plans for the future of the zoo. There are new enclosures and elephants on the southern slopes. With his drive and ambition I have no doubt it will happen. No joke. And when it does, he’ll definitely be laughing.