DATELINE – ZOO TROUBLE TX 1st September 2020

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Tall grass shudders, beneath a thick, green canopy. Something’s moving through the grass… deliberate… deadly.



SOT: Birds fleeing. Grass parting.








A JAGUAR appears from the grass. Muscular. Lethal. Its eyes confident, calculating. An apex predator who knows it.







VO: In the brush, a powerful predator stalks its prey.


VO: The Cheetah, native to Africa, is the world’s fastest animal.


VO But there are now just 7000 of these graceful cats left in the wild.

VO: Poaching and habitat destruction could wipe them out in a generation.


VO: But we’re a long way from Africa.


The quaint, British countryside. The exact opposite of jungles of South America.


TEXT ON SCREEN: Dartmoor, Zoo.


Devon, England.










VARIOUS SHOTS: TIGERS, OTTERS, MONKEYS, BIRDS and Zookeepers tending to them.






VO: Dartmoor Zoo is a 30-acre, charity run facility in England's south-west.


VO: Here, 152 species of exotic… endangered… even native animals are on public display.

SOT: A tiger GROWLS!

VO: But this year, at the height of tourist season… the zoo is empty.

VO: COVID-19 has closed all of Britain’s 338 zoos and is threatening their very existence.




EVAN heads towards the zoo.












EVAN: PTC: COVID has killed more than 40,000 people in Britain. It's been the biggest economic shock since the second world war. And as the country gradually comes out of lockdown, businesses are struggling to stay afloat because of the restrictions that are still in place.

VO: As I head to Dartmoor in early July, zoos have already been shut down for five months…

VO: …and they’ve just been ordered to remain closed indefinitely.

VO: I want to find out if zoos can survive and if the UK actually wants them to.




A LION’s roars bellows across the zoo. We find…
BEN & EVAN standing in front of the TIGER enclosure, listening to the animal’s call.   


EVAN: SOT: That is something!

BEN: SOT: That's amazing. Isn't it? You can hear it for seven miles Apparently. It’s actually a warning to other lions, to say that this land is occupied by lions already. So you have to get used to that if you sleep here.



BEN & EVAN walk around the zoo – looking at the animals in their enclosures.









VO: Former journalist Benjamin Mee is the owner of Dartmoor Zoo.  

SOT: Ben, that’s it! Good Girl.

VO: Ben moved here in 2006 with his wife Katherine and two, small children.

SOT BEN: Come on Shana. There she goes.

VO: Despite having no zoo keeping experience, Ben managed to turn the failing zoo into a conservation centre for exotic species…

SOT: BEN: I always wanted to have zebras.

VO: …and one of the Britain’s favorite animal attractions.

BEN: SOT: We bought the zoo because it was going to close down, and the animals were gong to be destroyed. And we thought, well that just can’t happen. It would have been like a little light going out in this region. And now, it really means everything I guess. It’s my home and those animals are part of my family.

SOT: Ben. He’s in astonishingly good shape.

VO: Rescuing the zoo, saved hundreds of animals… But Ben’s wife Katherine, didn’t get to see it.



STILLS: Ben, Katherine and children at the zoo.









BEN: We got the place in October. And her tumor came back in December of that year, 2006. And it was inoperable. And it was March 31st that she, that she died.






BEN walks around the zoo.









BEN: It was a very tough time. But I never was never even a second for ever we should stop this project. It would have been a disaster and made everything worse.

VO: After losing his wife to cancer, Ben wrote a book about his experiences at Dartmoor… then everything changed.



FILE FOOTAGE: We Bought A Zoo.






SOT: MATT DAMON: What’s so complicated about this place anyway?


SOT: A lion ROARS!!!

VO: The book inspired the film, We bought a Zoo starring Matt Damon – as Ben - and Scarlett Johansson.

SOT: SCAR JO: We need someone who can really take charge of this place, otherwise we, and these animals are gone  

VO: The film turned Dartmoor Zoo  into a star attraction.

SOT: WOMAN: Thanks for saving the animals.

VO: But thanks to COVID, the real-life Ben may not get a Hollywood Ending.




BEN & EVAN walk and talk.


SOT: BEN: It’s been shut since March. And we’re just in such an uncertain period and that’s the killer.

VO: Without customers, Ben is rapidly going broke


BEN: SOT: It’s incredible, the cost of running a zoo are just monumental. My next book is going to be called, never buy a zoo. It’s just not funny, it’s not what people think at all. At the moment with the animal feed and essential keeping staff it’s running at about 11 and a half thousand pounds a week at the moment which is pared right down normally it’s more like forty. The COVID has been really scary because the bills keep coming, you’ve got massive fixed costs and there’s absolutely no money at all through the normal channels.

EVAN: SOT: What happens if you can’t open within say a few weeks?

BEN: SOT: The worst-case scenario if they don’t allow us to open is, we’re back to that. We would have to euthanize the endangered animals. And all of the animals. Closing down a zoo suddenly, there are too many animals to rehouse. Every, other zoo is in a similar situation, even some of the big zoos would have to euthanize all of the animals and we can’t let that happen.

VO: There’s been talk of a government bail-out for zoos but as of July, it hasn’t come.

VO: Britain’s furlough scheme helps pay 80 percent of wages – but it does not cover other costs like veterinary bills or feeding.

SOT: A rodent gobbles capsicum.

VO: Ben insured the zoo for – of all things – pandemics – but the insurer is balking.

BEN: SOT: The insurance company has said they’re not going to pay any claims, even the ones that they can see  are valid. And it’s really a holding tactic so a lot of people will go out of business and won’t claim. We’ve paid our premium, we’re likely to go under if we don’t get the pay out and they are saying no.

EVAN: SOT: It doesn’t seem right.

BEN: SOT: It really doesn’t seem right at all.

VO: With no formal support, COVID looked set to destroy Dartmoor zoo… then something incredible happened.








SOT: PRESENTER: Dartmoor zoo needs to find 11 thousand pounds a week to survive the COVID-19 Crisis.  

VO: Ben launched an online fund-raising campaign.

VO: Despite their own financial stress, members of the local community donated enough money to keep the zoo running a few more months.


SOT: JOSH: So far I am on day 10 of climbing mount Everest

VO: Josh White had locals sponsor him to climb the height of Everest on the family stairs. He raised twenty-thousand pounds.

SOT: JOSH: We are definitely going to Dartmoor zoo as soon as this lock down is over.   

BEN: We were amazed and impressed with the amount of public support,  

BEN: it just makes you think people out there care about these animals and this place it is a special place we are trying hard to do the right thing and people appreciate that I’m just so grateful





BEN & EVAN arrive gather with the other keepers and discuss the results of the drill.


Long history of the zi.


Many modern zoos have raised standard and are engaging in active breeding programs.

But some say that’s  not enough. And that has some high profile detractors…


VO: But with zoos closed indefinitely, Ben knows the donations will only last so long.

VO: The reality is, even in non-COVID times, charity-run facilities like Dartmoor struggle to survive each year.
VO: It begs the question, if zoos operate so close to the brink, should they exist at all?

SOT: BEN: It’s easy to say that animals don’t belong in cages and I agree in general, but the wild isn’t safe for these animals. Every part of the globe, human incursion is causing habitat destruction. Modern zoos act like a refugee camp for animals. The Siberian tiger, there are 500 in Siberia and 500 in zoos. That’s it, there’s 1000 of these animals left in the world. That’s a significant proportion of the population - waiting for the wild to be a fit place for them

SOT: BEN: For me the key thing for zoos is that you are contributing to preserving endangered animals and protecting them for future generations.






A promo video for London Zoo from the 80’s.  





FILE FOOTAGE: Super 8 footage of British Zoos.  







FILE FOOTAGE: A TV commercial for Woburn Zoo from the 70’s.

VO: British people have always enjoyed a day out at the zoo


Boy: Does it eat me?

VO: Britain’s first zoo was opened in the 1100’s, by a lord in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

VO: His idea, to bring the world’s animals to Britain, sparked a 900-year love affair with exotic creatures.


SOT: we are animal loving people





VO: But since the late sixties, many have questioned the point of zoos. 


SOT: Born Free!

VO: Films like 1969’s Born Free, brought anti-captivity and conservation arguments into public debate.



Actual Born Free Charity releasing a lion.

VO: Many anti-zoo and animal protection movements emerged, including the charity Born Free, founded by the film’s stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

SOT: VIRGINIA: He’s magnificent


VO: The charity campaigns to keep animals in the wild and to protect their natural habitats.

SOT VIRGINIA: 20 years ago until now we are still allowing wild animals to live in the most hideous conditions

VO: In response to the anti-captivity movement, British zoos rebranded, positioning themselves as centers for conservation, as opposed to simply tourist attractions.

VO: But not everyone is convinced.



CHRIS: there’s quite a pervasive attitude that's emerged in, in, uh, recent years, um, this, this belief and this perception that zoos are a force for good for conservation. The trouble is when you start to scratch the surface of these claims. They don't really stack up.

EVAN: What does that mean?

CHRIS: The proportion of finances within the zoo industry that are going towards conservations is remarkably small.
in the UK, on average they were spending somewhere between 4% to 7% of their turnover on conservation in the wild. I would suggest that that is a pretty poor return on investment. If these zoos are conservation organizations.




Animals in captive breeding programs and British zoos.

EVAN: Don’t zoos provide a really important role in helping these endangered animals survive?

CHRIS:  So you're talking about animals that are part of captive breeding programs, so-called for conservation, but they're on display to the visiting public thousands and thousands of miles away from their natural home and their natural habitat, possibly in a completely different temperature, different humidity to what they always would have evolved to live in. Captive breeding, where it does have a value is in the country of origin of the animal as near to the animal's natural habitat as possible, not the other side of the world in a metropolitan zoo,



EVAN: But the environment for these wild animals is being so damage that they save captive breeding is like a lifeboat, like a refugee centre for these animals because their habitat is under such threat.

CHRIS: the analogy you give of a lifeboat is, is, is an interesting one. Because lifeboats are not supposed to float on forevermore. They're supposed to go somewhere else. They're supposed to save things and save people and get them off.
But if we're not tackling the threat and we're just relying on captive populations, we're stuck in this awful status quo where we've got captured populations of animals with nowhere to go. And that is, in my opinion, a that's a defeat that's, we've lost the battle once we're In that situation.


RETURN TO: EVAN interview with CHRIS. aa

EVAN: So what do you think should happen to zoos?

CHRIS: We should be looking at a way of phasing out zoos. Humanely, strategically over time, not just slamming the door shut. But reassess the value of zoos.





BEN responds to Born Frees Criticism.

BEN: SOT: It makes me sad cause I got into this whole thing as an animal rights activist, for some reason the animal rights people think animals don’t belong in cages, well think about it, some of them do. There are so many species going extinct all the time and they’re not going extinct in zoos you know. Those animals really do belong in those enclosures because that is how we can breed a safe population to supplement the wild population which is hopelessly diminished and that is something you can’t do without having captive animals.

VO: As conservationists and zookeepers question the future of animals in captivity, there’s an equally urgent threat facing british animals in the wild.



FILE FOOTAGE: WATERSHIP DOWN – Animated Rabbits are gassed and wiped out.

















VO: The Uk is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world


VO: Native animal populations have plummeted 60% in the last 50 years thanks to urban expansion, and farming 

VO: Whilst communities rally and raise funds to save animals in zoos, there isn’t the same enthusiasm for saving native species in suburban backyards

VO: But there are some fighting for Britain’s creatures, great and small.  



DRONE: A deer fawn is stuck in a fence. It screams and writhes in panic. A distressing image.


SIMON SOT: We’ve just had a call from a local park, they’ve rung us to tell us they have a deer trapped in a fence, it has tried to go through the fence and got it’s hips stuck, depending on how long it has been there, depends on whether it will be a rescue release or something more sinister going on  


FILE FOOTAGE: A compact car arrives on scene. A man in his 60’s emerges from it. This is SIMON COWELL… he approaches the deer.

FILE FOOTAGE: Simon retrieves two, large rectangular aluminium sheets from his car. He returns to the deer and wedges the pieces between the fawn’s hind legs and the fence


FILE FOOTAGE: The slippery aluminium allows the fawn to wiggle free.

FILE FOOTAGE: Simon watches the deer run into a heavy thicket  

SIMON: SOT: Hi sweet one

VO: This is Simon Cowell, founder of the Wildlife Aid Foundation, a charity which rescues English animals in distress.

SIMON: SOT: There’s a good girl, come on then. Alright go on, off you go.

SIMON: We get rescues all day, every day and often all night as well // It’s a hard slog but. you know, you just got the satisfaction knowing if you hadn't been there, if you hadn't of done it, that animal might have died.




EVAN arrives at a country house. Its appearance belies what’s inside. SIMON greets EVAN and shows him around.

VARIOUS ANGLES: Reception. Call centre. Enclosures etc…


SIMON looks in on some baby ducks.


SIMON CHATS with EV near an enclosure.

VO: Wildlife Aid HQ, is a repurposed manor nestled in the Surrey countryside.

SIMON: SOT: Welcome to the insane world of wildlife rehabilitation.  

VO: Part operations centre… Part veterinary hospital, from here, Simon and 375 volunteers rescue and rehabilitate injured animals from around the country.

SIMON: SOT: The whole point is to get it well as quick as we can and get it out.  What we never do is contain an animal. My big thing is, you know, to me the best cage is an empty cage. Um, and if it's got to be in a cage it's for the shortest time possible. And then he goes out and has a properly natural life in its natural habitat.



Volunteers rush about.. It’s very busy.

SOT: Phone’s ringing.

VO: During COVID, case numbers are at their highest in 40 years.

SOT: CALLER: It’s been incredibly busy. Everyone’s out walking. So the animals are now being found. So we’ve been getting hundreds more animals than we normally would.

VO: Volunteers answer a distress call every four minutes.

SOT: Is he now trapped in the garden?

VO: While vets treat over 80 injured animals a day.

EVAN: What sort of animals?

VOLUNTEER: SOT: Today we’ve got, 5 baby hedgehogs, a blue tit, dunnark, a bull finch and a pigeon.

EVAN: SOT: And It’s only 11 o’clock. So it’s going to be a long day.

VOLUNTEER: 11 o’clock so it’s going to be a long day.




A vet nurse tends to 5, small hedgehogs.




SIMON: SOT: How many were there? Five.

VET 2: SOT: Five, yeah.

VO: In the ICU, vets tend to five baby hedgehogs, rescued from dogs this morning, in a local backyard.
SIMON: SOT: What happened?

SOT; VET: he had a little patch of skin on his back that was getting all abscessed and horrible so one of the vets took that and cleaned it all up and put  bandage over the top to stop it getting any worse, as you can see he is quite lively, so he’s doing okay

VO: For the team, every hedgehog saved is a small victory.

VO: Because of habitat destruction, the hedgehog, could go extinct within the decade.

SIMON: SOT: The rate we’re building, things that were a woodland five years ago is now a housing estate and I find that quite tragic. There’s more roads they are putting more dangerous chemicals down, taking away green space, everything we do actually has a detrimental affect on wildlife, apart from those of us doing conservation  

SIMON: SOT: As far as wild life aids concerned we’re like a hospital doing a patchup and repair job. And it matters because we don’t want to lose too many of these species, but we need mankind to realise the importance of them and that everything has a place in nature. 





EVAN tours and VIDEOS of animals in distress play on the screen.

VO: Part of Wild Life Aid’s mission is to get that message out to the British people.

VO: So they film many of their call outs and post them online.

SOT: SIMON: We do loads of these rescues. All sorts of animals get stuck in football nets in the gardens. Tennis nets and other nets. And it will kill them.

VO: Simon tells us, viewing numbers have gone up during COVID. For Wild Life Aid it’s an encouraging sign.

SOT SIMON: I’m hoping that COVID has made us see that. It’s really important to have habitat and wild animals in the right places, and to not abuse them. Because if we do start abusing things and doing it wrong, we will get pandemics. Everything has its place in this planet, sadly man has overtaken too much. 



Simon checks in on his animals. A soft coda.

SOT SIMON: we came onto a planet which has been very successfully running for around 5 billion years and in the last 200 years we have really done it immense damage. And you know, we need the planet, the planet does not need us, it really doesn’t it could function really well without us. So we need it to be in place and working and I think we should be far more sensitive to all the creatures that we share this planet with, as a species, we should know better.

VO: If the UK is to save its native species it must re-think its relationship with nature and repair the damage done by humans.

VO: Thankfully a way to quickly and sustainably do just that has been found in an unlikely place.









At an acceptable, social distance EVAN meets with ISABELLA.

VO: I’ve come to the grounds of a 12th century castle to meet Isabella Tree.

ISABELLEA: SOT: Hello there.

EVAN: SOT: Hi I won’t come close. How are you? This is very magnificent.

VO: A former travel writer, Issy helps her husband Charlie run the estate.

VO: Traditionally, a wheat and dairy farm, the land has been in Charlie’s family for generations.

VO: But when the couple took over, centuries of overuse, had left the land infertile, and they were unable to continue farming.

SOT: ISSY: We were ploughing this land. We were drenching it in chemicals and it just couldn’t rebound. By the late 1990’s we were 1.5 million in debt and thinking of other things we could do with the land rather than battling against it all the time.


VO: Desperate, Issy and Charlie embarked on a radical experiment.

VO: They stopped farming, reseeded their land with wild grasses and reintroduced native cow, deer and pony species – and then let everything run wild.

ISABELLA: the idea was to, to just see if we could kickstart biodiversity, get systems working, again, get processes functioning.
And it was a complete revelation.

VO: What happened next may change the future of British conservation and zoos, forever.





VO: Centuries of farming at Knepp estate, in Horsham England had left its fields infertile and the farm on the brink of collapse.

SOT: An engine starts and stalls.

CHARLIE: SOT: Ohh. God that didn't sound so good. Did it? Okay

VO: But a radical experiment by owners Charlie and Isabella has done something incredible.





Charlie & Izzy talk to Evan they drive through the Knepp estate.

VO: Kneep Estate, is a land transformed…Or more accurately transforming

SUBTITLED EV SOT: I’m half expecting to see a rhino

VO: In just two decades 3.5 thousand acres of
once infertile farmland is now teaming with plants and wildlife. 

CHARLIE: SOT: DRIVE:  So the excitement here is that each field we go through you will see this really complex assemblage of plants coming back into this landscape. And that’s, as Issy always calls it,  rocket fuel for nature.

VO: Allowing native flora and fauna to grow wild, has created entirely new habitats, which has essentially healed the land.

VO: Native, long-horn cattle are now farmed sustainably, and are key drivers in a conservation project unlike anything else in Britain.

EVAN Because they're here and the way they eat, they're helping to create the environment.


CHARLIE Well without, without these big animals roaming around this landscape, it would, just turn into close as can be Woodland, and which is very specious poor. It's the battle between vegetation, succession, and animals, and this fight is going on. And that's what you're seeing. And that's what you're seeing the dynamics of out here. And that's why you're getting all this life back in.

VO: The process called re-wilding has transformed Knepp Estate into an incredible incubator for life.

VO: species long extinct on the British Isles have returned and are thriving here.





The bus pulls to an abrupt stop as Charlie points out a nest in some nearby trees.

CHARLIE: SOT: so I’ve stopped just here because up in that oak tree there we have white storks, one of them came from France, one of them came from our pen, built a nest here and they’ve got one chick  this is the first-time storks have nested and bred in Britain for 604 years… we are bringing back storks to Britain. We’ll get out and have a look…

EVAN: SOT: Why were they wiped out 600 years ago?

ISABELLA: SOT: Isabella: we’re pretty sure they eaten, they appear as fare on medieval banquet menus but whit storks became a symbol of insurgence and so after the restoration of king Charles the second in Britain, the royalists wanted to get rid of those white storks because they were worried it would forment descent against the king again

EVAN: SOT: Amazing. And here it is in an Oak tree

ISABELLA SOT: in a good old English oak tree

EVAN: SOT:  And it's good old English. Leading the, the nature insurrection

ISABELLA SOT: that’s exactly right




DAY WALKERS, hike through the grounds, stopping to admire different species.

VO: With storks leading the charge, other lost and endangered species, are now flourishing here.

VO: The numbers of Peregrine Falcon, bees, beetles, the purple emperor butterfly and the endangered turtle dove have increased dramatically.

VO: So too, the number of tourists.

VO: Due to overwhelming interest, Knepp now hosts day tours and farm stays - Eco tourism transforming it into a type of living, self-sustaining zoo.

SOT: CHARLIE; I had no idea that there’d be so much interest in nature. We’ve had a terrible year with COVID-19. But in general terms we have 4000-5000 people coming to see this wildlife.


EVAN SOT: 4-5000 a year?


SORT CHARLIE: And we’re 100% booked out a year in advance. Now with tourism and meat production we’ve now got a really quite profitable and stable enterprise.

VO: Kneep Estate is proof that farming, conservation and tourism can co-exist and be financially viable.

VO: With several, British, land owners deciding to re-wild parts of their farms too, could the Knepp experiment be a future, alternative to zoos and the answer to the conservation crisis?

SOT: If you want to get truly functioning nature again. You’ve gotta let go. We’re not talking about re-wilding the whole planet. But if we want to conserve the systems on which life on this planet depends, re-wilding is a way that we can show how to do that. And we can do it very rapidly. Within 20 years we’ve had these incredible successes. Nature has the answers we just have to a big mind shift and move into that process.  





A small crowd has gathered at the gate. It’s opening time. Punters walk in collecting tickets the streaming into the park.



Hundreds of men, women and children – families – couples – individuals walk the park, excitedly ogling the animals. 




EVAN: Hi Ben how are you?


BEN: Hi there Evan how’ve you been? Good to see you, and you?


EVAN: how have things been?


BEN: yeah, not so bad thanks.


VO: A month after our first trip to Dartmoor, there’s been a huge mindshift here too.    

VO: British zoos, have been allowed to reopen with a cap on visitors and strict, social distancing rules.


BEN SOT: So there was a point we were told there was no chance of zoos reopening for the foreseeable future and then four days later they said you can open tomorrow and things have come with a vengeance, it’s been really heartwarming

VO: Ben still hasn’t seen the insurance payout but he did get a small grant from the government as part of a 100 million pound bailout for zoos.

SOT: BEN: Most days at the moment are sold out, we only have 300 places a day but at the moment projections are that we will survive this year, which is great, which is all you can ask for.





VARIOUS SHOTS: Hero profile shots of animals, and then the characters we’ve met during the film.



SOT: KID: We’re going to see the animals!


VO: COVID-19 may have shown the precarious nature of zoos, but for now, Dartmoor seems safe.

VO: For visitors still carrying the scars of the pandemic, the zoo is proving a way to help them heal


SOT: EVIE: Oh my god. I just feel so blessed right now.

VO: Zoo regular Evie has schizophrenia and hears voices –

SOT: EVIE: Oh my god you are filling me with such joy now.


VO: For her, the chance to return to Dartmoor is a lifeline.  

EVIE: During lockdown, I was frightened, the voices were saying really nasty things. But when I’m around these guys, it slowly just slips away and that’s why I count this a privilege.


EVIE: Hey, how are you?


BEN: really well

VO: For Ben, its yet another reason why Britain and the world still needs zoos.


BEN: it’s a magical place, it’s not just about here is a lion and please buy an ice cream, we are trying to protect animals and their environment and help people, that to me is the primary function of modern zoos.





VO: Next week on Dateline, we go to the Greek island of Lesbos to meet the locals caught in a battle between welcoming tourists and welcoming asylum seekers. 


VO: And up next, The Feed.




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