Dartmoor Zoological Park


Most zoos must have a story or two to tell, but surely no animal sanctuary in the world can come close to the epic tale behind Dartmoor Zoological Park.

Human beings are fascinated by animals. We even welcome them into our families - approximately 50% of British households own pets. Animal lovers such as David Attenborough, and the late and much-missed Steve Irwin, have become modern-day cult heroes, but this love affair is not a new one. For years many great authors and poets have written about the relationship between man and animal, and the zoo has a history longer than many would imagine.

Animals in zoos have been entertaining and educating people since as far back as the 13th century. The first modern-day zoo was established in 1752 in Vienna, and the same sanctuary continues to pull in the punters today.

'We Bought A Zoo'

Dartmoor Zoological Park is a 33-acre site situated near the village of Sparkwell, just outside Plymouth in Devon.

Formerly known as Dartmoor Wildlife Park, it was opened in 1968 but was sadly forced to close in 2006 after falling on hard times. In August of the same year, it was bought for the small matter of £1.1m by the Mee family, who, headed by son Ben, reopened the zoo to the public in July 2007 after a major renovation.

On the face of it this may seem relatively unremarkable, but the back-story is so extraordinary that movie giants 20th Century Fox saw fit to buy the rights to a film adaptation of Ben Mee’s memoirs, We Bought A Zoo. With Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky director Cameron Crowe already in the hot-seat, and A-lister Matt Damon in talks to star in the lead role, this is clearly going to be no B-movie.

Animal Magic

So what of the zoo itself?

Anyone who had visited the zoo in its previous incarnation will be struck by the vast improvements made across the board. The excellent facilities, plus the range of activities and special daily events for kids, help to keep stress levels to a bare minimum.

But a zoo is not a zoo without animals, and the line-up here is impressive. The array of creatures include lions, tigers, jaguar, linx and cheetah (making up the largest collection of big cats in the region), bears, wolves, tapir, capybara, racoons, meerkats, monkeys, a great caboodle of bugs and reptiles and so much more.

A team of staff, with the help of volunteers, run a dedicated and purpose-built Education Centre, and the animals there include a variety of stick insects, snakes, tortoises, bearded dragons, poison dart frogs and gekkos. The team also provides an education programme for schools, both as an external service and at the zoo itself.

21st Century Zoos

Zoos haven’t always been to everybody’s taste, but significant improvements have been made in recent years and gone are depressing features such as the old steel bar enclosures and bleak, concrete cages. Dartmoor Zoo is no different, and works hard to ensure that its development doesn’t have a negative impact on the pretty woodland environment in which it resides.

This friendly, progressive and family-run Devon zoo is open all year round and admission is less than a tenner. With Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon’s celluloid interpretation in the making, demand is sure to go through the roof following the film’s scheduled release in 2011. A triumph in more ways than one, Dartmoor Zoological Park deserves to be a success.

Sean Cummins

June 2010

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015