Review of Zoo Nebraska by Carson Vaughan
I’ll start this review with a reference given at the end of the book. In the Acknowledgements section to be exact. Author Carson Vaughan was with his future wife traveling along the small town backroads of her youth when she casually pointed out a spot off the highway and said: “that’s where Reuben was shot.” Having written two books myself, I know that inspiration can come from unexpected sources. Learning that Reuben was a chimpanzee sparked Carson’s interest. What started out as a college thesis project morphed into a narrative nonfiction manuscript some ten-plus years in the making.
Carson Vaughan was right about his initial hunch. The story of Reuben and the events leading to his death is a compelling slice-of-life tale. The manic events surrounding Reuben’s death are given in great detail in the final chapters of the book. Everything that precedes that event makes up the lion’s share of the story. How is it that a chimpanzee ended up as the star attraction of a second-rate zoo in Nebraska? Who are the people behind these road-side zoos? What is like trying to run a zoo with limited funds? These are some of the questions covered in Zoo Nebraska.
The genesis of Zoo Nebraska starts with Dick Haskin, who brought Reuben to Nebraska inthe bed of his pickup truck. Dick was set on a course of primatology research. His plans were cut short when Dian Fossey, who Dick was slated to assist in Rwanda, was murdered. Dick had no intentions of starting a Zoo. In fact, he despised zoos. But Dick wasn’t the best at turning his interests into income. When he saw an opportunity to charge admission for others to view Reuben, Zoo Nebraska was born.
Despite Dick Haskin’s good intentions, Reuben lived a life of isolation and confinement. Dick had plans for a large enclosure where Reuben and companion chimps could live a more natural life, but Dick didn’t have the funds to build such an enclosure. His attempts at finding other chimpanzees to join Reuben came up short. Dick barely had funds to feed himself. But Dick had a dream and he made strides towards fulfilling that dream one day at a time.
As more animals were added to the Zoo, Dick’s responsibilities grew. Eventually, the demands on Dick exceeded his abilities and desires and he burned himself out. This is the point where Dick leaves the Zoo and others enter the picture. The new caretakers quickly arrange for several companion chimps to join Reuben, who by this time was showing signs of severe depression. Despite some early successes and promising developments, such as a $50,000 donation from Johnny Carson, the new Zoo caretakers are no more successful than Dick.
The fight to keep the Zoo going comes to a head when during a routine cleaning of the chimp’s cages the chimps are inadvertently set free. Any thoughts that free-roaming chimpanzees is not a big deal are put to rest when the author describes another incident where two chimps got free and attacked a man and his wife, disfiguring the man.
Reuban’s final day is both sad and hopeful. What were his intentions? Was he filled with rage and ready to attack anyone who got in his way? Or was he feeling glad that he was finally free? Free of his cage? Free of perpetual confinement? Free to spend his last moments on earth to go and do whatever he pleased. At one point during the escape, one of the chimps stops by a nearby house to swing on a tire hung from a tree. That is the image that I’d like to think describes their mindset at the time.
I read the book on a Kindle and listened on Audible. I was disappointed to discover that there wasn’t a single image to accompany the story. Perhaps there were images in the printed version. Whatever the excuse, the lack of images was disheartening. No matter how much description the author provided, I never formed a picture in my head of the zoo except for a collection of cages. To not even have a picture of Reuben is ridiculous.