Remember that Matt Damon movie – We Bought a Zoo? While it didn’t win any Oscars – it was a comedy-drama about a widowed father who bought a dilapidated zoo for his family’s fresh start.
While that was entertainment – a similar story played out in real life in Royal, Nebraska, population 81.
In the new book “ZOO NEBRASKA” – journalist Carson Vaughan – brings us the story of a zoo that became the symbol of hope – and later, tragedy – for this small town. It’s biggest donor – THE Johnny Carson – a Nebraska native.
Another native and primate enthusiast Dick Haskin had returned to the area with an adolescent chimp and transformed a trailer home into the “Midwest Primate Center.” Even with backing from Carson and many others – it failed to flourish and instead faced havoc, destruction and multiple killings!
Written in the tradition of some of our best American reportage – think Susan Orlean, John McPhee, Truman Capote, or “This American Life” – Vaughan’s “ZOO NEBRASKA: The Dismantling of an American Dream” is a resonant true story of small-town politics and community perseverance, and of decent people and questionable choices – many themes facing our country today!
Royal, Nebraska, population 81, is a place of characters out of central casting, rural charm, and deep dysfunction. It is a Great Plains town that failed to flourish—until Royal native and primate enthusiast Dick Haskin returned to his hometown with Reuben, an adolescent chimp, in the bed of a pickup truck and transformed a trailer home into the Midwest Primate Center.
From that ill-fated August 1986 decision, Zoo Nebraska grew, and transformed a desolate town on the brink of despair into a popular tourist destination over the next two decades.
With financial support from Nebraska native Johnny Carson, the primate center at Zoo Nebraska flourished, and ultimately became home to 60 animals across 7 acres. Haskin had hopes of creating “a first-class facility” that would become both an important research center and a boon to the local economy.
In “ZOO NEBRASKA: The Dismantling of an American Dream” – author and journalist Carson Vaughan describes how greed, small-town politics and power struggles, inept financial dealings, and myriad personality clashes led to the demise of the zoo.
It finally closed its doors for good in 2005 after 4 of the beloved chimps escaped and wreaked havoc on the town of Royal for hours, terrorizing its residents.
In an act of final desperation, 3 of the chimps – one of which was Reuben and Haskin’s “best friend” – were shot and killed by locals, a devastating and tragic end to the zoo and its inhabitants!!
1. How did you come across this story?
2. As a fellow Nebraskan, what does this moment in history mean to you?
3. The subtitle “the dismantling of an American Dream” is both powerful and relevant. In a country where the notion of the American Dream is encouraged and revered, how does your book demonstrate the opposite? When does the pursuit of the American Dream bar good intentions?
4. Booklist” called the book, “a fascinating small-town drama.” How do you think an expose on small
town politics and relationships opens up the wider conversation about politics on a larger scale in
5. How does power reveals itself in isolated areas, and how do you feel it serves as a representation of larger national power plays and politics.
6. How has the town and the characters reacted to the book.
About the Author: CARSON VAUGHAN is a native of Broken Bow, Nebraska. A freelance journalist who writes frequently about the Great Plains, his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, Paris Review Daily, Outside, Pacific Standard, Slate, The Atlantic, Vice, In These Times, among other publications. ZOO NEBRASKA is his first book. You can see more at www.carsonvaughan.com.