Nebraska’s Wild Kingdom

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 17, 2002

Rueben is a typical teenager. He loves radio and television and often can be found sitting around with an apple and glass of juice, looking at magazines. Although he has a habit of wearing no clothes, except for socks on occasion, he’s a star in his hometown of Royal, Neb. (pop. 75).

Rueben is an 18-year-old chimpanzee—one of more than 60 animals on display at Zoo Nebraska in Royal, where he dazzles visitors by talking in sign language. He has learned 30 to 40 signs over the years and is one of only a handful of chimpanzees in the nation that can communicate with American Sign Language. He also can identify objects such as his favorite foods, apples and grapes, and body parts such as his nose and chin.

Rueben was the first and only exhibit when his lifelong pal, Dick Haskin, founded the zoo in 1987 as a primate behavioral project. But he wasn’t the first exotic animal to inhabit Antelope County. During prehistoric times, rhinos, elephants, saber-toothed cats, and camels roamed the rolling plains around present-day Royal.

“Ten million years ago the area was teeming with wildlife—but with an emphasis on big game,” says Mike Voorhies, a paleontologist who grew up in nearby Orchard, Neb., (pop. 391) explaining that during prehistoric times northeastern Nebraska had a climate and wildlife population similar to modern-day Africa.

In 1971, Voorhies was exploring the tributaries of the Verdigre Creek valley northwest of Royal in search of fossils when he discovered a baby rhino skeleton protruding from a creek bank. The rhino was among thousands of animals buried after a gigantic volcanic eruption in present-day Idaho covered parts of Nebraska with up to 10 feet of ash.

Now, Voorhies, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, spends his summers at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, which was developed in 1991 around his skeletal discovery 30 years ago.

Last summer, the park celebrated a decade of educating visitors, who can observe paleontologists uncovering hundreds of fossilized animals still in their death poses in a protective structure known as the “rhino barn.” Ashfall visitors also can stop by to see Rueben and the other living creatures at the zoo located on 5.5 acres on the east side of town.

“I never thought Royal would ever have anything like this, but with a little extra help, I guess anything is possible,” says Royal native and longtime zoo volunteer Justin Jensen. “Visitors can see the animals really close up.”

In addition to Rueben, the zoo is home to deer, mountain lions, snow monkeys, bobcats, pygmy goats, and silver fox. Two Bengal tigers brought to the zoo last fall are housed, along with most animals on display, in an exhibit built with donations from local individuals, businesses, and organizations.

“Small zoos are nice to work with because you can take a more hands-on approach,” says zoo Director Dale Bakken, who leads a staff of seven full-time and part-time employees in the summer and a force of nearly 50 volunteers who assist with construction and fund-raising events.

Bakken and his wife, Sandra, who can be found cleaning animal cages and talking to visitors, are among the people in Royal who enjoy educating others about the region’s wild inhabitants—both past and present.

“All the animals seem so at ease here,” Jensen adds. It seems that’s always been the case.