The Dismantling of an American Dream
by carson vaughan
little a, 266 pages, $24.95
For two decades, the Royal zoo was one of northeast Nebraska’s major tourist attractions and a minor miracle for Royal, a town of about eighty-one residents. Generations of students on field trips visited the collection of exotic animals along Highway 20, which included a lion, two tigers, a black bear, and the zoo’s first (and favorite) chimpanzee, Reuben. That is, until September 10, 2005—the day the chimps escaped.
Carson Vaughan’s first book, Zoo Nebraska, is an absurd story, less funny than sad. And it’s about much more than an impractical dream that became a failed tourist venture. The chimpanzee disaster captures the story of Royal, but it's a tale that echoes in other rural towns struggling through the turn of the century: Faced with a diminishing population count, few economic opportunities, and dwindling reasons to stay together, its residents held their one hope for survival so tightly that they suffocated it.
Zoo founder Dick Haskin, a Royal native and Reuben’s longtime caretaker, was always an animal person; he fell in love with primates in a middle school science class while watching a video about Jane Goodall. When his dream of working with world-renowned primatologist Dian Fossey in Rwanda was dashed by her murder, he grudgingly took a job at the Folsom Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, despite his disapproval of keeping animals in confinement. He had a special talent for working with chimpanzees, and when the zoo planned to move two of them, he offered to take Reuben with him back to Royal.
From his trailer house by the highway, Haskin planned to build the Midwest Primate Center to carry on Fossey’s work right at home. But the support just wasn’t there: He had little money, few trained staff members, and no resources in the middle of corn country to properly take care of Reuben, let alone conduct “serious primatological research.” Haskin began to buy or accept donations of other animals from zoos and wildlife centers to attract visitors and try to pay the bills. The Midwest Primate Center became an eccentric farmyard menagerie, and soon, the very thing he hated: a full-fledged zoo.
It almost destroyed him. Haskin had few reliable employees or volunteers. He worked insane hours, lived on Diet Dr. Pepper, and never made a cent. “I was one of the caged animals there,” Haskin recounted later. “I just went through hell.” He believed the zoo’s board nearly worked him to death, in full knowledge of how overwhelmed he was. But he loved Reuben and the other chimpanzees, and he hung on as the zoo slowly began gaining popularity.
Haskin’s dream had obviously grown beyond his grasp. He was no administrator: His attempts to promote the zoo—mostly involving showing off Reuben in church basements and town halls—didn’t reach far beyond Royal residents, whose pockets had already been shaken out time and again for the zoo. His appeals to the broader scientific community fell on deaf ears, since higher-ups thought Haskin’s proposals for the Primate Center unlikely at best and dangerous at worst (celebrity appeals were marginally more successful: Johnny Carson donated money for a primate enclosure in 1990). And certain Royalites, as invested as they were in the zoo, were at times as much a hindrance as a help.
Haskin finally broke down in 2000, physically and mentally shattered and completely disgusted with the zoo. A series of directors took over, all varying degrees of incompetent and incapable of controlling imperious Royalites. And while the zoo’s attendance climbed, especially during a membership partnership with the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, the quality of management continued to slip. Volunteers, employees, and the USDA increasingly worried that the zoo was unsafe for the animals, too.
It all reached a breaking point with a simple mistake. A volunteer left the gate open while cleaning the chimpanzees’ enclosure, and all four took off into Royal. The men of Royal responded accordingly: with shotguns. Three of the four were killed.
“Why didn’t they call me? Why didn’t they call me?,” was Haskin’s grief-stricken refrain after the catastrophe. To this day, Haskin remains convinced that he could have saved Reuben. But few other witnesses agree, insisting the frightened chimps would have turned on him. Regardless, the bloody day heralded the end for Zoo Nebraska, which closed for good in June 2007.
The story of Royal’s zoo is an ambitious undertaking for a first book, and Vaughan handles it with an eye for detail, an ear for regional idiosyncrasies, and an empathetic understanding of the various perspectives on this emotional and deeply personal story. But he’s no Truman Capote. He often over-dramatizes, going heavy on the purple prose in what is clearly intended to be a painterly writing style.
But Vaughan did spend seven years eking out the story, first working around a flat refusal from Haskin and then rewriting when he did open up with a testimony that (like so many small-town legends) in some places flatly contradicted what he had heard from others. Vaughan is a rural Nebraska native himself, and perhaps this helps him understand these tensions and the way a story gets talked over, different versions reflecting each person’s vision of his or her beloved town. It’s telling that few Royalites were willing to talk to the press immediately after the chimpanzee disaster. This was Royal’s business—best for its citizens to sort it out among themselves.
Vaughan admits that the facts may never line up, but the story’s essence comes through all the same: The residents of Royal loved their zoo to death.
Hannah Niemeier, a native of Worms, Nebraska, is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion.