Benjamin Mee; Owner of Dartmoor Zoological Park, author, journalist, family man and animal lover is a firm believer in the benefits of being outdoors. Giving us an insight into life at the zoo he also discusses the profoundly positive powers of being outdoors...
I’ve always been a huge fan of the outdoors, but never really realised just how much until relatively late in life.
As a child it seemed natural to spend as much time as possible riding a bike, climbing trees, or making a den in the woods. Only when I moved to the city in my twenties did it start to feel like there was something missing.
Living in London, I remember visiting a friend in the countryside late one October and only then realising it was autumn. There simply wasn’t enough foliage around at the Elephant and Castle to remind me of the season.
As a health writer I came across the work of Dr William Bird, a GP from Oxford who noticed that only 12% of his obese patients actually took up their gym membership when it was prescribed as part of a weight loss and exercise program. 80%, however, took up his offer of a walk in the woods at the weekend. He began to incorporate volunteering in light woodland clearance, like raking leaves and clearing pathways, and found that the benefits were easily equivalent to regular gym-based exercise, with the added perk of improving social skills and confidence from working together in a group. Plus, there seemed to be an additional benefit of being outside.
Biophilia is the term given to this benefit, first coined by Professor EO Wilson in the 1980s, and there is now a host of scientific evidence to show that simply being outside is good for you. Even taking an exam with a potted plant on your desk can make a difference. It’s something we’ve always known - the Japanese have for centurbies called it “Forest Bathing” - but we easily lose track of the necessity of being amongst trees, mountains and rivers during our busy urban lives. There are no trees - let alone mountains or rivers - at the Elephant and Castle.
Fast forward a few years in my life, and I unexpectedly found myself in the strange situation of having bought a zoo. It’s a long story documented in my book, We Bought a Zoo, and subsequently made into the Hollywood film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon - as me. So far, so surreal.
But the reality of rescuing a decrepit broken down zoo in a recession, during five of the wettest summers on record back to back, was frankly, taxing. At the beginning of this process my lovely wife Katherine died from a brain tumour, leaving me and our two small children, aged four and six, to face these struggles alone. There were some very low points, particularly being responsible for 250 exotic animals - lions, tigers, bears and wolves amongst them - and thirty five staff, all inhabiting thirty two heavily wooded acres of broken down infrastructure.
Obviously the children and the animals were a strong inspiration to keep going, but it gradually emerged that the woodland was the thing which was unexpectedly giving back to me. Forcing myself away from the nightmare of spreadsheets which didn’t add up to go outside and dig a hole for a fence post, or, very specifically cut back some wild brambles and saplings, suddenly I had an endorphin injection I wasn’t expecting. I distinctly remember tackling some sycamore saplings with a bowsaw - in the rain - a task I hadn’t wanted to do, and then feeling almost magically better that evening. Muscles I hadn’t used properly for years were reminding me of their existence - muscles you can’t easily work in the gym - but I was also oxygenated and alive, with a sense of achievement at having done something positive towards modifying my environment.
I now spend as much time as I can outside, ideally following Dr Bird’s recipe of actually engaging with the foliage.
As custodian of Dartmoor Zoo I turned it into a charity four years ago, and as well as the conservation work with endangered animals - we’re getting extremely rare Amur leopards as part of a program to reintroduce them into the wild - some of the most rewarding work we do is with our cohort of around 100 volunteers. A few have minor mental health issues, and it’s a real joy to see them grow here, working in a team, breathing in the outside air and learning about the animals.
This year we helped get six excluded teenagers actually taking GCSE’s in English and Maths, based around a project to build some decking at the zoo. Breaks were spent writing up their work, calculating materials for the next stage, and, incidentally, looking at lions.
Probably the most striking work we have done is with veterans suffering from PTSD. This is a very difficult co-hort to reach. Typically ex service people who have been through battle are slow to trust people who haven’t shared their experience. But get them standing two feet away from a jaguar or a tiger that clearly wants to eat them, and you have their attention. You can see them come to life. They are enthralled by these animals, as everyone always is, and as soldiers they very much respect the fact that they can kill you. Then you tell them they’re going in the enclosure - with the animal locked away - so that we can do some maintenance work. “Is it safe?” is always the first question, and right away their adrenaline is up.
After working for several hours inside the jaguar enclosure, one veteran who has done five tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, told me that the buzz he got from being in there was “Like being on Ops.”
Surely not, I said. The animal is locked away, and it’s completely safe. Unlike say, a night patrol in Helmand Province. How can it possibly rate against that? “Eight out of ten,” he said. “Look, no offence, but we don’t know you or your procedures. We saw a very dangerous animal go through that door, and if a lock goes or you make a mistake he can come out again. We all did a QBO (quick battle order) so we knew which way we’d run if he came out. I told the sarge that I’d just break his ankle with my shovel so I didn’t have to run so fast.”
So the black humour was back, but so was the exercise, the team spirit, and significantly, the adrenaline, in a safe environment. The biggest cause of death among veterans following conflicts is violent accidents, partly due to adrenaline seeking. Working in the enclosures at Dartmoor Zoo ticks every therapeutic box there is for these guys (and girls), and their mental health teams have noticed an identifiable spike in “breakthrough conversations” after their visits. We are currently exploring with the MoD whether we can get this Lion Therapy designated as a recognised therapeutic activity, so that they can be ordered to come as part of their treatment. And at the end of it all, they’ve done something useful that they can take pride in. Several have come back with their children and proudly pointed out the work that they had done.
The profound healing power of nature is just one of many ways that the zoo has surprised me over the years. Not everybody is “lucky” enough to live in a zoo (My next book, Never Buy a Zoo, may be out next year), but everybody needs a dose of the outside, ideally every day. Going to the park in the city is a must, even if you don’t have a dog (although studies do show that dog owners lead longer, healthier, happier lives. Just saying).
Make it your business to go up to a tree as often as you can, like our ancient ancesters did, and breath in the oxygen they produce. If you do it every day, it might just change your life.
(And if you’re doing it every day you might as well get a dog, which definitely will.)