After inviting New York Times bestselling author Tosca Lee to town, the Schuyler Public Library is ready to bring another Nebraska-based writer for a wild visit.
Carson Vaughan, the freelance journalist who created "Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream," is visiting the library at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 to discuss the book, which tells the true story of the town of Royal, Nebraska, and the zoo located within it. Admission, as always, is free and open to the public.
Jenny White, director of the Schuyler Public Library, said that she first learned of Vaughan when she was at the Nebraska Book Festival in September. After the meeting, she decided to message him on Facebook, hoping for some kind of response. When she got one, she invited him to showcase his work in Schuyler.
“I didn’t know if he still lived in Nebraska or if library visits were even something that he had interest in,” White said. “He replied, surprisingly enough, and we had a discussion and he very much would like to have an author event at our small town library.”
The book itself is largely about one man and his dream: Dick Haskins, who grew up wanting to work with Dian Fossey and her research on primates. His goal was mainly to work with apes in the wild and he studied biology in order to get as close as he possibly could. Eventually, he achieved his dream as Fossey asked him to work on her team. Everything was in place, until…
“Just before Dick was scheduled to go over there, that’s when she was murdered in Rwanda,” Vaughan said. “That put Dick into a tailspin.”
Now, Dick needed to do something to quench his thirst for primatology and he decided to bring one small chimpanzee with him to the small town of Royal, Nebraska, establishing the Midwest Primate Research Center. At first, it was supposed to be a small, peaceful place where he could study the nature of primates and how they operated. It wasn’t a zoo and was never intended to be a zoo.
“Dick had always been morally opposed to zoos his entire life,” Vaughan said. “He came back to Royal with a single chimpanzee and that unfortunately snowballed over the years. He intended to work just with great apes, but people would donate animals, a few here and there. That’s when things got out of control.”
Because Haskins needed money to continue the research, he decided to collect and keep the animals for people to watch, almost a betrayal of his own opposition to the viewing of animals in captivity. Eventually, he would become less involved with the research center as he decided to hand over control of the facility and the animals within to the surrounding area.
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“There were volunteers at the zoo from all over northeast Nebraska,” Vaughan said. “In fact, there weren’t that many people from Royal itself, although there were a few key members of the board (from there). They came from Verdigris, Norfolk, they came from all over.”
By the end, Haskins wasn’t involved in the zoo, leaving it up to volunteers from all over the state. That volunteer work may have been what caused the ultimate demise of the zoo, as a volunteer forgot to keep track of the lock protecting four chimpanzees from the town.
“She got distracted, forgot to lock a single padlock and all four chimps just pushed open the door and walked out,” Vaughan said. “There was no protocol in place for how to deal with an animal escape. Most people in Royal were so familiar with the chimpanzees that they weren’t even afraid or didn’t even think it was that weird to see the chimps out of their cage.”
Three of the four were soon shot dead by the manager of the zoo and that was the turning point for the operation. Attendance fell and soon, the State of Nebraska got involved and the facility was shut down, a victim of greed and selfishness on the part of the people of Royal, Nebraska, according to Vaughan.
White hasn’t finished the book yet, meaning that she is just as intrigued by the story as anyone who might attend.
“It’s such a peculiar story,” White said. “He probably has the clearest picture of everything since he talked to all the players involved. I would like to hear about how this got off the ground in such a remote location with zero resources and how it lasted as long as it did. What exactly were the factors that lead to its demise, besides chimp murder?”
This is a story without a happy ending, yet it’s a very American story with lessons that go beyond the small town in which it’s based. Greed, arrogance, selfishness and the need for more made it close, and all those things make it such ripe material for a story like this.
“Had the Royalites and all the other people involved with the zoo worked together and not spent so much time fighting each other about various petty things on the board, the zoo could have had a much happier outcome,” Vaughan said. “The way it is today, they tore themselves apart.”
Zach Roth is a reporter for the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at email@example.com.