The Zoo With the Story

In the spring of 2013, we had spent a particularly quirky weekend in the West Country with friends. It was rounded off by drifting into Dartmoor National Park. Now if you are traversing the length and breadth of its vast moorlands, you know you have the Dartmoor Zoological Park at hand. A family-owned affair that was featured in the film, We Bought a Zoo. A zoo that was in a derelict state and its animals at threat of being put down when it was bought by a freelance journalist and his art editor wife. That was in 2006. Since then Benjamin Mee lives in the wildlife park with his two children and mother. His wife died the year after, of brain cancer. But I am not going to narrate their story here because it is not mine to tell. Instead I will tell you about the inhabitants of this family-run zoo because they exude emphatic charisma.

When we got off the Tamar Bridge that spans the River Tamar, we gradually made our way to Sparkwell. Picture here, a small village with a few character cottages, whitewashed stone affairs with quaint windows, a local church and a rustic gastro-pub with a Michelin star to its credit. On the outskirts of it, stood the 33-acre zoo where we arrived after driving through a landscape that seemed to have been woven out of neon green pastures and brown moors, tangled branches of old trees sprouting tiny leaves, and those bare, sheathed in moss and lichen.

Inside were the regular suspects — ponies and temperamental ostriches, wallabies, wolves, otters zebras and curious cranes, but what were those? The eyes goggled as they fell upon rodents as big as hogs. Capybaras. Supposedly the largest rodents in the world, but quite so challenged on the beauty front. Then there was Otto, the Great Grey Owl, an ascetic boy around whom we had to be quiet around because he liked his peace, a few Burrowing Owls excessively fond of a locust diet, tapirs with a soft spot for tummy tickles — and altogether too many reptiles and slugs and frogs who I shall skip over.

The stars of the show came later. A family of meerkats, slender beings with grizzled coats of grey and brown fur, tiny ears and dark patches around their eyes. Natural, effortless comedians as they stood upright in an effort to spy the horizon for likely predators. They were after all surrounded by a gaggle of inquisitive humans.

Dartmoor Zoo is not your average wildlife park. It is tranquil. So it is with pleasure that you can observe its many inhabitants. Such as the somnolent cheetah who could not be bothered with anything but snoozing in the mellow afternoon sun, the Siberian tigers Vlad and Strip who took turns in sitting upon a stone perch in their enclosure, Jasiri the lion who roared magnificently, strutting and showing off his majestic maned beauty to the gawping few, then proceeded to ignore one and all once he got a juicy slab of steak. In the aftermath of it, you could hear the disturbing crunch of bones and behold a creature of impetuous passion. You shuddered and figured that it was time to move on.

In the next enclosure, pacing up and down the length of a path running around a green mound with a disused car sitting atop it, was Josie. I was thrilled to bits to see this contemplative lioness because she happened to be Solomon’s daughter.

Solomon was the star lion of the park when he was alive and had featured in We Bought a Zoo (go on then, click it already). This lion with the mahogany mane had quite the presence but, mind you, only after his mother-in-law Emma had died. For when Solomon arrived at the park, he had Emma and her daughter Peggy to befriend. He tried to assert his authority. He was a male, dammit. But Emma would have none of it. The story goes that during feeding times, Solomon always stood at the back patiently waiting for Emma to take her share first. Only when she had moved away, would he dare to take his. Solomon mated with Peggy — Josie was one of their cubs — and became the king of the pride after Emma died. Now there is only Josie left with her cooperative instincts which is attributed to her weakness for meats. A plaque outside notes: ‘She is always keen to go in or out, whatever is necessary to help the keepers, hoping there may be a small reward for her assistance.’

And would you not meet the brown bears, Hayley and Fudge? Hayley, the European Brown Bear, is a senior lady in her 31st year with a penchant for curry powder. She must be lonesome now, having lost her beloved friend, Fudge, last year. But when we met them, Fudge, the Syrian Brown Bear who was an uncommon shade of straw, was trudging faithfully in Hayley’s trail. Hayley was immensely protective of this older and weaker friend of hers. Both were very health conscious ladies. Fruits and nuts made up their diet, and Hayley, careful with her diet, ate meat and fish once a week. I remember how alert Hayley was. Later in the evening, on our way out when we stopped by to say our farewells, she waddled right up to the door of her enclosure and lay there like a being waiting to be loved up. And somehow I was left with a hypocritical disquiet that revolved around the dichotomy of the very existence of a zoo.


Dartmoor National Park





And here, we enter Dartmoor Zoo
Capybara alert. They are sociable beings so bond easily with the others here. On the extreme left you can spy a resting capybara.
A shy common marmoset
Hayley gives us the once-over
Hayley and Fudge
The many moods of Jasiri


A statue…
…it is not. Vlad and Stripe. Both are dead now.


The lazy cheetah







Published by

Arundhati Basu

The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.

58 thoughts on “The Zoo With the Story

  1. Wonderful zoo and will keep in mind the name Dartmoor. I love visiting zoos with my kids and have been to the one in Oakland & San Diego (in CA) and NC Zoo in NC here .Loved the pic of the tiger on top of the stone ! The star lion looks awesome as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zoos are such a difficult topic; on one hand, I love that the animals are being saved and looked after carefully and many wouldn’t actually be alive had they been left in the wild…..but on the other, they’re rather undignified for such brilliant creatures. I can imagine i would HATE being stared at day in day out and having strangers invading my territory. Loved your post! To be honest, this zoo sounds brilliant – although it’s such a sad story about the family xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You get me, Mia. I find it a struggle to deal with. Such magnificence contained within spaces — however large they might be — and all for our pleasure. It seems shameful and yet I know that it makes sense when the owner says that Siberian tigers have to be saved and replicated so that they can someday be reintroduced to the wilderness. Also yes, the ignominy of being stared at for a lifetime.

      But given all my nagging doubts about the topic, Dartmoor is beautiful and they have kept the animals well. The story of the Mee family is heartbreaking. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful memory you have of the zoo. Loved seeing your photos of the inhabitants – especially the meerkats! They always look so alert and playful. The landscaping is very green and lush and the cheetah certainly looks comfortably taking a nap. Enjoyed the post! – Neek

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Neek 🙂 The meerkats are one of my favourites with their comical cuteness. I mean I can imagine them with little waistcoats and hats even! The landscape of this entire national park is indeed divine. xx


      1. Oh I am so in. I will watch that for sure.

        Did you see Saving Mr. Banks? Not that it featured any adorable pooh-inspiring bears, but so so good. Also makes me cry a bit for some reason. I am weak!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, watch it. And for embracing tears, I have quite a few to embrace, but I think I am up for the challenge. 🙂 And I have already found A Bear Named Winnie on Amazon Prime. Hooray! I would watch tonight, but I fear it would take all of 10 minutes of credits for me to fall asleep. Hopefully tomorrow…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice! My daughter would love that place. (Plus, you inspired me to pen a new blog post which will come up eventually). Laughed out loud at “quite so challenged on the beauty front”. That’s so true yet they are (imagine little girl’s voice here) sooooooooooooooooooo cute!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah thanks Sheree, what makes Dartmoor special is that they let you know about these beauties at length so that you feel like you want to know them. I am not a fan either. I just do not know where to stand when it comes to zoos. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Such a great movie, Arundhati!
    Your picture of the tiger on the rock reminded me of the lions at our zoo here in Melbourne. This past week I have had family from overseas, staying with us, and over the weekend decided to take them to our zoo. Two lioness were majestically posing, still as statues, high on a thick wooden branch. We watched them for ages. Without movement, taking in their surroundings and not bothered by even a fly, such amazing creatures. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds hypnotic, Lorelle. A charmed moment…nature and her creatures are humbling 🙂 It is great to hear that you have watched the movie already. It is one of my favourite stories. To think that a family went ahead and actually bought a zoo, the practicality of life and losses be damned. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “And somehow I was left with a hypocritical disquiet that revolved around the dichotomy of the very existence of a zoo.” very nice ending, well-said. Even if we are appreciative, one has mixed feelings. (The meerkats are super-cute!)

    Dippy-Dotty Girl, how do you organize your previous trips, photos, etc., to be able to bring them together into new wonderful posts! You must be very organized. I enjoy them! 😉


  7. Lovely zoo and a wonderful, sunny day to top up a perfect visit! I loved- ‘we bought a zoo’ as a kid…it hasn’t stood the test of time for me like soooo many others have (like Matilda) but still, visiting the place where it was shot, will indeed be surreal and enjoyable! The animals look well-cared for and the place looks very tranquil! I am sure you had a lovely time!

    P.S- BTW, are you excited for Oscars tonight? I haven’t watched any of the nominated films except for ‘I, Tonya’ but am always looking forward to the opening monologues, tearful or funny speeches) and memorable Oscar moments! 😉 xx


  8. Watching it as a kid would have been special. I had a fight with it. Why on earth did they not shoot it in Dartmoor all through? I guess there might have been logistic problems but I found the location being changed to an entirely different continent a bit jarring. The rest however I loved 🙂 There is something about seeing the place that inspired the film and a book too by the owner of the zoo.
    I am excited. We are going to sit with a bucket of popcorn and see it in real time (for once). I am yet to watch ‘I, Tonya’. Is it worth it? We have so far watched ‘Dunkirk’, ‘The Post’, ‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘Victoria and Abdul’. I have at least two I want to watch today but I do not know if we will manage it given that we are stepping out for brunch with friends. But hoping to make a list and watch a fair bit later 🙂 Have fun, my lovely. I bet you will have an array of goodies lined up for the husband! xx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s