'Kids expect to see Matt Damon here'
BEN Mee has never tried to conceal the struggles and financial desperations that accompanied his family's decision to take over the zoological park in 2006.
Four years after moving in, they were forced to liquidate the company that owned the zoo after their bank withdrew credit and reduced their overdraft.
Ben said they came "very close to the edge" then, and that the new operating company has "basically been bouncing along with no credit" ever since, boosted by "fantastic support" from local businesses and the public.
Thankfully, the release of the film based on his book has made a "massive difference," with annual visitor numbers more than doubling.
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Ben said: "We could feel it before March, people were becoming interested and we were getting visitors on rainy days who wouldn't have come before.
"We were suddenly on people's agendas. Easter was monumental, we had roughly five times normal visitor numbers. Even off season we still had lots of people, especially from abroad – it's quite humbling to think the message has got so far out there."
He said visitors' expectations could sometimes be worrying, adding: "It may be a Hollywood film now, but to us it's just our little story. People turn up wanting to shake your hand, have their book signed, its amazing. A lot of the children clearly expect Matt Damon to be running the zoo and their faces fall when I show up.
"For the zoo it has made such a massive difference. I believe most visitor attraction numbers are down, but we are up – in spite of the rain. We're hugely relieved that's happened. All we've managed to do with that momentum is pay off our debts, particularly tax, but it is a big relief."
Ben said he estimated he had earned around £1 million through the book and film, all of which has been pumped into bailing out the zoo.
He added: "Just think about the swimming pool in the warm place I could have bought with all that money. But when you go and spend time with the tigers, the bears, any of the animals, you realise you can't put a price on what we've done here. The animals would all be dead if we hadn't."
My visit to the zoo begins with the incredible sight of Vladmir, one of their Siberian tigers, stretching up magnificently at the edge of his enclosure, eating hunks of meat given to him by curator of animals Colin Northcott along with Gareth Chapman and Tina Laws, from Staffordshire, who are on a Big Cat Keeper For The Day experience. As Vlad pushes his enormous face up against the wire, Gareth said they have spent a "fantastic" morning lugging around deer legs to feed the zoo's lions, cheetahs and jaguars.
The new year will see new additions to the zoo's host of species. Three wolves are currently in quarantine at the site but will shortly be moved into a newly designed enclosure. The zoo's previous wolves had to be relocated to another park after the former owner culled some members of the pack, destroying its complicated hierarchy. The fields in front of the restaurant will soon be home to African zebras, living in a beautiful wooden enclosure built after Tesco offered the funds.
Ben said 2013 will also see them embarking on an attempt to become a charity. He added: "It's a very complicated business because I have to raise the money to buy the zoo from my family and then I can turn it into a charity. It's the right thing to do for this place because you get tax breaks, more grants and most successful zoos are charities."
Other ambitions include turning the large house his mother currently lives in at the centre of the zoo into a Bed & Breakfast, and also building a campsite within the park.
Ben added: "The idea of listening to the wolves from a tent or B&B is fantastic, but there are many hoops to jump through. We have to get the house up to standard and isolate it so its secure at night. Obviously we can't have people wandering around so the campsite has to be in the zoo but not actually within the perimeter."
All in all, the year is ending on a high for Ben and his family. He said: "Cash flow is always going to be an issue, but we're in a healthier place now. It's been an incredible year – let's see what the next one brings. I'm hoping for wolverines."