Stories from a Wanderer – Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

On a recent foggy Sunday morning, I set out to stand in the gigantic dinosaur footprints at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, self-proclaimed “Dinosaur Capital of Texas.” While the area is considered North Central Plains, it is punctuated frequently by mesas and valleys and rims and ridges, with the Paluxy River running through it. It was the Paluxy and its limestone riverbed that was my initial destination. I had hoped to stand in 113-million-year-old theropod and sauropod tracks, some as large as three feet wide, that were laid in the limey muck when the area was a receding sea.

Fortunately, we’ve had a good deal of rain this winter; unfortunately that means that the dinosaur tracks are under water. Not wanting to pay the park entry fee if I could not get close to the dinosaurs’ tracks and trails, I decided to wait for another day.

I considered two sites I had passed on the road. The first was the Creation Evidence Museum of Texas. I have had occasions to consider the scientific evidence for a youthful earth, I am curious about any new arguments to be made. While I doubt I can be convinced in creationism, there might be something new to be learned or thought about. Scientists’ increasing ability to analyze ancient DNA and today’s ideas about the manner in which evolution actually works are quite different from the theory of evolution I was taught in high school. The Webb Space Telescope is making scientists reconsider the origins of the universe. Nonetheless, I decided to be curious about creationism another day.

The next site was Dinosaur World, promising life-sized dinosaurs in a natural setting with interactive exhibits, animatronics galore and a gift shop. There are displays both indoors and out, and the web site and parking lot posters emphasize that they are dog friendly. If I’d had a young child along or if I were traveling with my dog, I may have been tempted; however, I wasn’t up for a solo animatronics experience. I had more wanderings to do.

I drove on and stopped at a roadside picnic site, a lovely spot shaded by live oaks. There are several stone fire pits and picnic tables and I can picture it as a popular wayside during tourist season. There is a historical marker that tells the sad tale of an 1864 “Indian raid” (of course, “defense of territory” works, too) with men killed on each side. The marker also provides details about life during the Civil War. For example, women often dressed as men as a defense mechanism while most men were away, and very young and elderly men might work war defense in shifts, 10 days away and 10 days at home, to keep farms and businesses operating. Sometimes the area’s residents were compelled to live together in tents in groups of 50 to 100 families for safety. The marker is a sobering reminder of hard times for many.

After a few moments of reflection and fresh air, I turned to technology and quickly clicked onto the Explore Glen Rose website. I found several self-guided tours, some historical sites, museums and a number of recreational sites that I might enjoy. One in particular called to me: Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. I had lived in Central Ohio for 35 years and never visited the Columbus Zoo’s similar institution, The Wilds, and I deeply regret it. I decided that today I would have a “safari adventure” and know that I had not missed another opportunity. I chose the guided tour. The moment I made up my mind, the sun made a dappled appearance through the trees and the breeze picked up. I purchased a ticket and was ready to go! But first, I needed to grab some lunch.

There are quirky things about Texas that I have yet to fully understand. One of these is the Dairy Queen. I have long been familiar with Dairy Queen as home of the Blizzard, that magical whirled concoction of ice cream and mix-ins, and a burger if you need one. But Dairy Queen in Texas is…Different. The 600 DQ Texas franchises go their own way with their menu, where the rest of the country is in burger-and-fry lock-step. I decided to investigate personally. I can report that “The Dude” sandwich – chicken-fried steak on a bun with vegetable fixings, mayo and a touch of sweet relish – would be a happy addition to menus in the other 49 states.

But on to Fossil Rim. I was checked in immediately and the tour on an open, roofed safari-style truck left on time for the 7-mile, two-hour tour. Our guide was Becca, a student in wildlife management at nearby Tarleton University. She was professional and engaging, answered questions easily and seemed to truly enjoy her job and her employer. There were probably 20 people on the tour, almost half young and very young children. While there was a short tantrum or two and the volume rose at points, the animals remained unphased and so did I.

Throughout the tour, animals that wished to approach were rewarded with guests tossing food pellets to them; and animals that preferred to hang back by themselves or with the herd had the opportunity to ignore us. There was also enough land that some animals were enjoying privacy in woods and over ridges. Any concerns I had about the animals being overfed were dismissed when I realized that almost everyone, adult and child alike, had spilled their food pellet cups on the floor of the vehicle within the first fifteen minutes.

Among the animals to be seen in the first pasture were wildebeests, fallow deer (small Old World deer with antlers like moose) and chestnut-colored bongos with blond stripes. A wide-eyed, 7-foot-tall ostrich was quite bold, snatching pellets from the edge of the truck to the squealing delight of the kids on board. There were baby animals everywhere, some hidden and some in the open enjoying the breeze and the sun, depending upon the species and mama’s preference. I was personally delighted with the opportunity to see giraffes up close and offer them tasty lettuce treats which they gently took with their big soft lips.

At the halfway point there was a break of about 15 minutes – long enough for the restroom and a brief visit to the petting zoo or a coffee or hot chocolate from the cafe. During this break I learned from Becca that there is a good deal of behind-the-scenes acreage for individual animals and species that are shy and prefer to be out of the public eye, or that for conservation purposes should not become too familiar with people. Their populations of black-footed cat, maned wolf and Mexican gray wolf are kept in these private areas. Gray wolf female puppies born at the center are candidates for reintroduction to the wild, which along with their aloof nature is a good reason to keep their habitat separate. Males are kept for genetic diversity for breeding programs. Cheetahs are shy and easily stressed, so although the center has a good number of them and an impressive breeding program, only three were on display the day of my tour. Only those who can handle the fame are in the rotation to be seen by the public. While none of the cheetahs at Fossil Rim are candidates for reintroduction to the wild, there are some in the next generation that may be appropriate for the opportunity.

Becca cheerfully filled me in on this behind-the-scenes information and answered questions I’d saved up. Then the tour resumed. The rest of the time flew by while I saw some animals I’d never seen at all, and many I’d never seen up close – the elegant dama gazelle and the sturdy aoudad, Africa’s only sheep. There was the scimitar-horned oryx with its almost surreal beauty, Grevy’s zebra, waterbucks, blackbucks and for the finale, three enormous Southern white rhinoceros.

I am a believer in mission statements and a stickler for conservation ethics, so I read Fossil Rim Wildlife Center’s carefully:

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is dedicated to the conservation of species in peril, conducting scientific research, training of professionals, responsible management of natural resources and public education. Through these activities, we provide a diversity of compelling learning experiences that inspire positive change in the way people think, feel and act with Nature.

Of course, the tour was part of “public education” and it was indeed a positive learning experience. I’ve always had intensely conflicted feelings about zoos, as many people do. Still, the young people aboard were excited, which may lead to inspiration. I experienced a renewed sense of awe at the beauty and diversity of animals on this earth. The center’s conservation efforts are admirable. In fact, I may visit Fossil Rim Wildlife Center again, with the added behind-the-scenes tour of the vet facilities and a peek at the non-public acreage.

As for the Glen Rose, Texas area in general, I will definitely return, first to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park when the conditions are more favorable for hunting dinosaur tracks. There are museums and a walking tour I believe I would enjoy. I would also like to view Comanche Peak (a large mesa that is a prominent feature of the landscape) and learn about the historic events that took place there. I intend to check out some of the beaches along the Paluxy River, as well, to see if they are dog friendly. My dog loves to swim more than I do!

While I didn’t end up exploring the place I intended, I would call this excursion a grand success. Whether you venture near or far, may you learn more about our amazing world and return home restored. Happy wandering!

greta ode
Greta Ode is currently enjoying “tiny house” living in Weatherford, Texas. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is an editor and contributor to Tandeta Journal. Her work can be found on Substack at “Ramble, Bramble.”

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