A freelance journalist’s account of a zoo that became the symbol of hope—and later, tragedy—for a small Nebraska town.
Dick Haskin never expected to open a zoo in tiny Royal, Nebraska. A farmer’s son who loved animals more than people, Haskin dreamed of working as a primatologist after watching a film about Jane Goodall in his early teens. However, when he graduated from college in 1983, he found he had to take jobs in zoos, which he “truly, viscerally, hated,” rather than Africa. But a chance meeting with Dian Fossey at a primatology conference brought with it the opportunity to work at her research center in Rwanda. Fossey’s murder not long afterward dashed Haskin’s original plan, but in its place arose another idea that involved opening a primate center in Royal. Haskin acquired a chimpanzee named Reuben and a trailer, but he set his sights on creating “a first-class facility” that would become both an important research center and a boon to the local economy. Despite climbing attendance and a donation from Nebraska native Johnny Carson, by the late 1980s, Haskin and his foundation were “running on fumes.” Bickering board members had no interest in raising the funds necessary to transform Haskin’s vision into reality. The center—later known as Zoo Nebraska—eventually fell into other hands that managed to expand the number of animal attractions and tourist visits but also earned the enduring enmity of larger zoos that saw ticket sales decline. Power struggles involving zoo directors and its board members also ensued. In 2005, Haskin’s quixotic dream ended in violence when law enforcement officials shot and killed three escaped primates, one of which was Reuben, Haskin’s “best friend.” In this easily digestible portrait of small-town life, Vaughan compassionately and understatedly traces the evolution of one man’s grand vision and the petty politics that destroyed it.
A thoughtful meditation that will appeal to animal lovers and readers interested in tales of small communities coming together.