'Zoo Nebraska' and Small Colleges in Rural Areas

How are zoos like colleges?

May 5, 2019

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream by Carson Vaughan

Published in March of 2019

How are zoos like colleges?

This is the question that I found myself asking while reading Carson Vaughn’s engaging, in-depth account of a failed small-town zoo.

At its peak, Zoo Nebraska in Royal Nebraska (population 63) held four chimpanzees, Bengal tigers, Japanese macaques, and a camel. 12,000 visitors came through the gates in 2003.

In 2005, things went horribly wrong at Zoo Nebraska.  The chimps escaped their enclosure, resulting in three of the non-human primates being shot and killed by the Zoo staff.  By 2007 the US Department of Agriculture had pulled the Zoo’s license to operate.

The closing of Zoo Nebraska is, apparently, not unique in the zoo world. Like small, tuition-dependent colleges in the Midwest and Northeast, many small zoos are no longer able to maintain economic viability.  There is even a Wikipedia page listing former zoos and aquariums. 

Zoos are like residential colleges, in that they are a form of total institution. Colleges educate students, but they also house and feed and entertain and protect them.  Zoos and colleges are both 24/7/365 entities. 

Zoos and colleges are also run, apparently, by an equally idiosyncratic and obsessive type of human primates.  You have to be a little nuts to decide to start a zoo housing chimps in a small town in Nebraska.  Some days, I think that our commitment to an intimate and residential liberal arts form of education is equally as crazy.

Zoo Nebraska is the complete story of one zoo.  From idea to death. It is also the story of the big personalities and petty jealousies that characterize small town life.

We need more books about the life of small towns in rural America.  The story of the chimp escape and the aftermath in Zoo Nebraska is undoubtedly horrifying.  But the path for how Zoo Nebraska came to life is inspiring.

Anyone interested in chimps, zoos, and small-town life will enjoy reading Zoo Nebraska.  Those of us who believe that small liberal arts colleges located in rural areas deserve to survive may also find some parallels in the life and death of this small zoo in Royal.

What are you reading?


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