cover image Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

Carson Vaughan. Little A, $24.95 (252p) ISBN 978-1-5039-0150-6

Journalist Vaughan skillfully narrates a resonant, at times heart-wrenching tale of small-town Americana. Royal, Neb., population 81, was just a blip along Highway 20 in northeast Nebraska until local resident and animal lover Dick Haskin founded what would become Zoo Nebraska. It began in 1986 in a donated trailer home, with Reuben, a chimp Haskin had become close to while working at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, as its first resident, eventually expanding to include other buildings and species. Vaughan shows how the zoo’s high staff turnover, woeful underfunding despite native Nebraskan Johnny Carson’s intervention, and chronically inept management (particularly after an exhausted Haskin departed) led to the sad events of Sept. 10, 2005, when the primates escaped and ran through the town, causing havoc and resulting in the killing of Reuben. What could have been rote reporting in lesser hands springs to life as Vaughan dramatically revisits that grim day and the series of bad decisions that led up to it, giving a white-knuckle retelling of the rampage and the sad, even cruel aftermath (a local restaurant quickly added “Chimps & Dip” and a Reuben sandwich to the menu). Vaughan’s nuanced, poignant storytelling provides a sobering take on what happens when the best intentions go awry. (Apr.)