By Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West
Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Devon DIY expert Ben Mee faced his biggest makeover challenge yet when he took over a zoo.
Father-of-two Mr Mee had written books about DIY and even had a column in The Guardian newspaper.
But fixing a cage which a jaguar had just leapt over, or making an enclosure wolf-proof?
That was a whole new adventure for Mr Mee and his family who are reopening the Dartmoor Wildlife Park which they bought last year.
There was plenty of room for improvement when Mr Mee, his brother Duncan and mother Amelia took over the park, now renamed the Dartmoor Zoological Park, last year.
They had bought it for £1.1m with money from the sale of the family home in Surrey.
But it had deteriorated so badly the authorities had refused to grant another licence and they had to borrow another £500,000 to bring it up to standard.
Pathways, enclosures, restaurants, shops all needed upgrading.
The issue was brought home starkly four days after they moved into the house on site when a jaguar escaped from its enclosure, followed earlier this year by a wolf found wandering near the village.
He said: “At about 5.30pm I was sitting with the head keeper, Robert, in the kitchen when Duncan burst in, shouted, “One of the big cats is out! This is not a drill!” and ran off again.
The park’s jaguar, Sovereign, was inside the tiger’s enclosure with its inhabitant, Tammy.
“Both animals were agitated, and if they began fighting one would have to be shot,” he said.
“Suddenly the jaguar lunged at the tiger’s hindquarters, and the tiger turned and swiped the jaguar’s head, spinning him like a doll.”
Kelly, the cat keeper, then ordered all available men to go to one end of the cage.
“On command we yelled as loudly as we could.
“The tiger’s tail twitched, her ears flattened and after a couple of minutes she jumped off the rock and into her house.
“In the morning, the crisis officially ended when a ranger from another park arrived with a dart gun, and returned the comatose jaguar to his proper enclosure.”
Sovereign’s cage was strengthened and improved, with old wooden posts replaced with metal posts and a four-strand electrical fence.
Zoos ‘increasingly important’
But the zoo again made headlines in February this year when a wolf called Parker clambered over the top of its enclosure and went walkabout before being recaptured.
The old enclosures at the wildlife park had been criticised by animal rights groups who said people should boycott it.
But Mr Mee is adamant that all the animals are now in better conditions.
And the zoo has been checked by the local council and the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
The name change to zoological park reflects new concerns said Mr Mee, with the accent now on breeding and conservation of species.
“I wish that there were huge areas for them to roam free,” said Mr Mee, speaking from the new enclosure for Sovereign who was in quarantine.
“But with market forces being what they are, I think many will be extinct in the wild in our lifetime.
“Zoos are becoming increasingly important as a seed bank for wild animals.”
Mee has been obsessed with animals since he was young, so when he heard the zoo was for sale, he jumped at the opportunity to put his knowledge into practice.
“I had written a book on awareness in animals, but I had never done any hands-on management,” he said.
“It’s been a very steep learning curve.”
There are 218 animals in the 30-acre zoo, including five tigers, three lions, three bears and seven wolves.
In the future Mr Mee hopes to add orang utans, gorillas and giraffes and zebras.
Right now he is looking forward to re-opening the zoo on Saturday.
“It is all a bit tight, but at last we shall have income coming the other way, rather than just going out,” he said.
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