ROYAL, NE — It’s hard to believe anything newsworthy could come from Royal, Nebraska: population 81. That was largely the case until the 90s when the zoo opened. It was still mostly true until 2005 when the zoo’s chimpanzees escaped, raced around town and three out of four were eventually shot dead. Now that’s more than newsworthy, it’s book worthy.
For Carson Vaughan, the obsession started in 2009. He was looking for a topic for his senior honors thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A coincidental drive through Royal gave him that topic and more.
“I drove through Royal one day and saw a sign for an auction for what’s left of the zoo and thought, ‘I’ll go see what that’s all about,’” Vaughan said. “Then I kept digging and digging and fell into the rabbit hole and 10 years later I came up with a book.”
His obsession isn’t too dissimilar to the obsession which drove Dick Haskin, the founder of the ill-fated zoo. Haskin and the zoo are now the centerpieces of Vaughan’s first book, “Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream.”
Vaughan says the book is more than the story of the infamous chimpanzee escape, it’s about the themes that dominate rural America; like obsession, big dreams, isolation, hope and failure.
“If this was a story about only Royal, or relevant only to Royal, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time on it. But I see some of my hometown of Broken Bow in it, I see Norfolk in it, I see every small town I’ve ever been in,” Vaughan said. “You run into the same kind of characters and the same themes that keep cropping up.”
The themes drive the book instead of the traditional protagonist vs. antagonist. Vaughan says despite the controversial real-life ending to the story, there’s no real enemy. Everybody made mistakes, but they were honest mistakes.
“I didn’t walk away from studying this thinking, ‘here’s the villain or here’s the person to blame.’ I just see it as human nature,” Vaughan said. “Everybody made a few bad turns along the way and we ended up with one big mistake.”
But the book, certainly not a mistake. “Zoo Nebraska” is on shelves now. Vaughan has been touring the state promoting the book and sharing its rural Nebraska story.