Day Trips

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center offers visitors a chance to see 1,000 exotic, threatened, and endangered animals in a free-range setting

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center outside of Glen Rose turns 20 years old this month. The drive-through park gives visitors a chance to see 1,000 exotic, threatened, and endangered animals in a free-range setting. At the same time, the price of the safari tour goes to supporting research and preservation programs that benefit animals around the world.

It is an incredible experience to see herds of antelope running through Fossil Rim's fields in waves, turning in unison like well-choreographed dancers. Giraffes and deer come up to your car window looking for treats. The 9.5-mile trip through the park is like watching a wildlife film through your car's windshield, except the animals are usually close enough to feed and touch.

"We have changed dramatically over the 20 years," says Bruce Williams, director of operations for the park, "both in physical layout and education programs that we offer." Williams started working at the park in 1983 as a college intern, the year before it was opened to the public.

Kelley Snodgrass, the animal care coordinator, is another of the three employees who have been with Fossil Rim since the beginning. "We have a different philosophy and purpose now than we did in the beginning," Snodgrass says. "We made some mistakes along the way, but we have had a lot of successes, too."

The park began in the early Seventies as a private exotic animal ranch owned by Tom Mantzel, who made his fortune in oil and gas. His experiments with captive breeding of Grevy's zebra earned him entrance into the Species Survival Plan of the American Association of Zoological Parks. It was the first ranch to participate in the program that manages the genetics of captive animals around the world.

After the near-collapse of the petroleum industry, Mantzel opened his ranch to the public in June 1984, to help finance his growing herds. "Most of the roads were not paved back then," Snodgrass says. "We literally had to pull some of the cars up the hills."

By 1987 the ranch was nearing bankruptcy, despite a growing reputation as a unique attraction southwest of the Fort Worth/Dallas area. Galloping to the rescue came a former helicopter pilot and a documentary filmmaker. Jim Jackson and Christine Jurzykowski learned about the animals' plight while researching the possibility of opening their own wildlife preserve.

Under their direction the park improved visitor services, expanded educational opportunities, and increased the conservation programs working with endangered and threatened species. In 2000 Fossil Rim became a nonprofit entity under the auspices of Earth Promise, an international conservation group.

One of the park's most notable successes has been the breeding program for cheetahs. Due to poaching and habitat loss, the big cat, which can run up to 75 miles per hour, is endangered in the wild. With this year's litter of cubs, Fossil Rim's program will have produced more than 100, almost half of the entire population of the species in North America, Williams says.

Fossil Rim also has breeding programs with the maned wolf from South America, the Mexican grey wolf, the red wolf from the southern U.S., and the coatis of Texas. The program has released more of the Attwater's prairie-chicken into the wild on the Texas coast than any other breeding program. Due to pressure from poaching, Zimbabwe asked the park to start a breeding program for the black rhino, which has resulted in four calves.

"It's a shame that these programs are necessary," Jurzykowski said in an interview nine years ago, "but with the pressures on the species in the wild, many would not exist at all today without our efforts."

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is about seven miles west of Glen Rose off U.S. 67. Open March through October from 8:30am-5pm and November through February from 8:30am-3:30pm, admission is $16.95 for adults, $12.95 for senior citizens, and $10.95 for children, with half-price admission on Wednesdays (April 1-Nov. 1). The Overlook Cafe and gift shop at the halfway point of the driving tour includes the Children's Animal Center. Fossil Rim also offers behind-the-scenes tours, overnight safari camps, bicycle tours, and a bed-and-breakfast-style lodge for guests. For more information, call 254/897-2960 or visit their Web site at www.fossilrim.org.

681st in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Grevy's zebra, Earth Promise, cheetahs, Attwater's prairie-chicken

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