Friday, May 24, 2019

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream - Carson Vaughan

Having grown up in a small town, I learned the hard way that small towns are both the best and the worst places for kids to live.  That bit of wisdom came to me just as I reached young adulthood; right about the time I decided that I had had enough of small town living to last me a lifetime.  But my little town was home to just over 12,000 people when I escaped it.  Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream, in comparison, is set in a tiny village in rural Nebraska called Royal – population 81 when things went bad there.  The problem for Royal and the little zoo it was collectively so proud of was that there were some pretty unusual people among those eighty-one souls.

Dick Haskin was one of those eighty-one people, but Dick did not plan to stick around forever. He had a big dream and he intended to make it happen: get a job in Rwanda assisting famous primatologist Dian Fossey.  But just when that near impossible dream was within his grasp Fossey was murdered in her base camp, and Dick headed back to Royal with Reuben, an adolescent chimp in the back of his old pickup.  There Dick, ever the big dreamer, installed Reuben into an old trailer home and created what he called The Midwest Primate Center – and for a while things went well.  Dick went on to add enough other animals to the center (cougars, tigers, wolves, bears, fainting goats, and the like) that it was renamed Zoo Nebraska and became a popular regional tourist draw for the village.

Author Carson Vaughan
But there were big problems for the little zoo right from the beginning. Admission receipts were never enough for Dick to pay himself a salary or even to hire the amount of help he needed to run the facility properly, so Dick worked himself literally almost to death trying to do most of the work himself.  He had to depend on volunteers - people whose own love of animals and pride in the zoo compelled them to help out when they could -  if he and the zoo were going to survive. Unfortunately, too many of the volunteers and board members recognized that the zoo was failing and became involved in a power struggle that would ultimately doom the zoo they all claimed they loved.

And that was before the chimps escaped and scared the citizens of Royal half to death.

Vaughan says in his author’s note at the end of Zoo Nebraska that it is difficult to place the blame for what happened to the little zoo on any one person or group. As he puts it, “I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone involved lands somewhere in the middle; that intentions were often pure but expectations rarely fulfilled… “More importantly,” he says, “I’ve come to see hints of Royal – both hope and struggle – in small towns everywhere, or, perhaps more accurately, hints of every small town in Royal.

Bottom Line: Zoo Nebraska sometimes reads more like fiction than nonfiction; it is that hard to believe that something like this could really happen.  If it were made into the rare movie that exactly follows a book's outline, most viewers would still consider it too farfetched to be anything other than satire about modern life in small town America.  Time to roll out one of my favorite clich├ęs: Life is stranger than fiction.

Book Number 3,397


  1. Life is stranger than fiction! Especially here in America. ;D

    1. So true. This one has an unexpectedly scary ending, too.