It is a story that framed the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster that grossed more than $100million, and drew in a Hollywood A-Lister to play its lead character.
Yet, for Benjamin Mee and his family, his wife Katherine’s battle with a brain tumour is a story that started long before they decided to buy the dilapidated zoo on the edge of Dartmoor that would provide the unusual setting for the film.
Indeed, whereas, We Bought a Zoo, starts with Benjamin, played by Matt Damon, purchasing a zoo while grieving the loss of his wife, in real life the Mees were already trying to transform Dartmoor Zoological Park’s fortunes by the time Katherine lost her fight with the disease.
Her tragic death in 2007 came three years after she was first diagnosed - just months after the family had celebrated their wedding with their two children in the south of France.
“Katherine and I met in 1994,”said the father, who told his children their mother was going to die while in the picnic area of the zoo.
“We both worked hard in London writing and designing for various glossy magazines. In 2002 we moved to France to bring up our son Milo and daughter Ella. Life was good.
“Katherine was incredibly popular in the village, she was beautiful, thoughtful, polite, kind and gracious, and made a huge effort to engage and fit in with village life.”
The couple married in France in April 2004 before Katherine’s diagnosis, but the zoo owner said even his wedding photos are marred by the knowledge she had the tumour already.
“The following month was a stressful one,” he continued. “We were selling our flat in London remotely, buying an uninhabited barn in France, and moving from a decent rental house to a cheaper one, to save money.
“It was then that I noticed Katherine was not herself. She started getting headaches, which we passed off as stress, but also she was not her usual organised self.
“Typically, during a busy time, Katherine would write lists, and organise me, but she just wasn’t aware. I remember when we went to buy the children’s beds and she couldn’t concentrate, complaining of a headache.
“Then in the car on the way home, when she slurred her words, and reached back to take some keys from the children, but her hand returned holding a pencil – and she didn’t notice the difference.”
He said the couple, under the misapprehension Katherine was suffering from migranes, went to get painkillers but instead she was sent for an MRI scan.
“The scan showed a big black ball-shaped shadow on her brain,” he said. “I’ve been a health journalist and I did a psychology degree. I knew enough to know a big black shadow in the brain was not a good thing.”
Katherine was taken immediately to Montpellier where she underwent steroid treatment and then an operation, but despite it being declared a success, the pair were warned the tumour would come back.
“I remember thinking ‘he thinks it will come back, but he doesn’t know us, or me, I’ll find a way to stop that from happening, I’ll use my health contacts, we’ll try something experimental’.
“Which we did, we looked into all sorts; including scorpion venom and magnetic therapy, and I sent copies of Katherine’s scan to experts in treatment centres all over the world to see what could be done.”
He said the couple had a relatively good couple of years despite Katherine losing weight due to chemo and radio therapy. But on December 22 2006, the couple received the devastating news the tumour was back, this time, in a scattering of eight small sites making it inoperable.
“During that period the zoo came into our lives and we moved back to the UK, to Plymouth, to take over Dartmoor Zoological Park,” Benjamin continued.
“This hadn’t been an easy decision, especially given where we were in our lives, but I knew I was probably facing many years of bringing up the children without a mother and could not think of a more amazing place to do that.”
Katherine’s care switched to Derriford where she underwent more chemotherapy.
But the zoo owner said he was still holding on to the hope one final treatment be the transformative thing needed to help her back to health or prolong her life.
He continued: “I’d read about dichloroacetate through a research report the University of Alberta had released, which suggested that dropped onto tumour cells it dissolved them, and crucially the drug could cross the blood brain barrier.
“The drug was licensed in the UK and US to treat blood disorders, but I could not get a doctor here or in France to sign a prescription for it. In the end we managed to get hold of some and we administered it ourselves at home.
“At the very least, just doing that gave us all hope that we were doing something positive and not giving up in the final months of Katherine’s life. I was frustrated at this point, thinking: ‘If this drug can do what it purports to do, why on earth is the system so slow in getting it to the people who need it?’”
Benjamin said although the couple felt lucky the tumour hadn’t altered Katherine’s personality her condition deteriorated in her final months.
“Towards the end of her life, Katherine just faded away as she receded into herself,” he said. “Her speech had gone, the left side of her body had stopped working – so I used to carry her a lot. The NHS wheelchair was terrible on the paths round the Zoo.
“I used to take her for walks to see the animals, as there would always be something to marvel at – when a tiger is footsteps away, we would forget for a moment what else was facing us.”
He said as Katherine’s condition worsened, he decided to tell their children Ella, who was four, and Milo, who was six, that she was going to die.
“I felt a massive responsibility to tell them what was going to happen before Katherine passed away, so I took them to the picnic area at the zoo and gently told them,” he said.
“Ella cried immediately and climbed onto my lap for a cuddle and Milo stayed quiet. I said to him, ‘It’s ok to cry you know,’ and he replied: ‘I don’t want to Daddy, I want to stay strong for you’.”
Katherine died on March 31 and was buried in Jersey where her family originated.
But Benjamin said he didn’t have the choice to give in fully to his grief. “The zoo was due to reopen to the public in July, after months and months of getting it up to scratch to pass its inspections and animal welfare checks,” he said. “We were on a mission and it helped me to keep my emotions in check.”
He continued: “Katherine’s memory is very much alive at home; we talk about her a lot and I see her in the children. Ella likes the same foods as her mum so I can say to her ‘your Mum loved this, you might too’ And both children have a similar creative streak. The date December 22, the date the tumour returned, is etched on my mind, but otherwise we remember and talk about Katherine every day.”
Benjamin Mee was speaking to coincide with the launch of a ground-breaking new collaborative partnership between the charity Brain Tumour Research and Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.
Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry will now become an active research and fundraising partner with Brain Tumour Research. The charity will support research and supply dedicated members of staff with expertise in fundraising, marketing and PR to work at both local and national levels alongside existing teams, creating a dynamic fundraising programme.