He has witnessed a lot of positive change over the years at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, and now Executive Director Dr. Pat Condy has decided change is in order for him personally.
After 14.5 years at the helm of Fossil Rim, Condy will be taking a sabbatical in October and return to the wildlife center in 2018 with a different role. Before focusing on the future, however, Condy shed some light on his Fossil Rim years, as well as his past.
Born in Zimbabwe – known then as Rhodesia, Condy lived there until age 22. Earning his Bachelor of Agriculture in Animal Science degree in South Africa, Condy received a Rhodesian government bursary from the National Parks & Wildlife Department and returned home to work for that organization.
He would go on to earn a master’s degree jointly from the University of Oxford and the University of Rhodesia in Tropical Resource Ecology. Condy was one of four people chosen for the newly created Master’s Program supported by the National Parks & Wildlife Department, which was a 14-month course. At the encouragement of his professor in the program, an amazing opportunity arose the following year.
“The Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria in South Africa had just received a five-year contract to conduct mammal research in South Africa’s Antarctic Program,” Condy said. “My professor suggested I apply for that. I was a landlocked wildlife biologist who knew nothing about marine biology, but it intrigued me. Eventually, I applied, got a call to interview and got the job.”
Later that year, he arrived on Marion Island, the largest of the Prince Edward Islands that were South African territory in the Sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean.
“We were there primarily to do seal research, and that eventually shifted to whale and penguin research, as well as the mice and cats that had been introduced to the island decades earlier,” he said. “The mice and cats were devastating the sea bird populations that used the islands as breeding platforms. The only mode of getting around that island was on foot, and it took about 5-7 days to traverse it depending on weather.”
Condy lived on Marion Island and then mainland Antarctica for a total of two years and spent four summer seasons on expeditions to the Antarctic mainland researching seals, whales and penguins. He received his PhD through the Mammal Research Institute.
Soon after, he was hired by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to expand the scope of research on Antarctica.
“For a decade, I was scientific director for the South African Antarctic Program,” Condy said. “We had about 400 scientists from universities and government labs all over the country, involved across biological sciences, earth sciences, ocean sciences and atmospheric sciences programs.”
He still traveled frequently to Antarctica and Sub-Antarctic Islands to observe progress of the research. Meanwhile, he married his wife, Ymke, in 1982. They would have two boys – Richard and Christopher – and a girl, Jacqui. Years later, wanting to spend more time with his growing family, Condy ended his tenure with the Antarctic Program.
“A friend of mind in Pretoria was building a lot of townhouses at that time, and he needed help,” Condy said of a new career path. “He needed someone in-house to source some of the needed materials, rather than buying from building suppliers. I did that for three years by skipping the middleman and purchasing directly from the manufacturers.
“It was fun. It got me out of wildlife and science and into the business world. I learned a lot about cash flow and profit and loss.”
The animal world would come calling again, as Condy joined the Johannesburg City Council to become executive director of the Johannesburg Zoo.
“It was an opportunity to get back into wildlife, plus my first exposure to the captive side,” he said. “I was tasked with reorganizing the zoo, building its tourism trade and its economy in order to eventually privatize it as a self-funding nonprofit entity. It’s 250 acres – a very big, pretty zoo.
“That was my first exposure to the zoo world, as opposed to free-ranging wildlife. It allowed me to mix wildlife and business.”
After nearly a decade with the zoo, Condy resigned and moved to America.
“First, I was the director at a small zoo in Florida as a transitional move of sorts,” he said. “Then, I moved north to work at Boston University’s offshoot called the ‘School for Field Studies’ as academic dean. It had research centers all over the world, and for a semester students would go as a study-abroad experience, undergo normal classes and participate in the center’s directed research program before returning to their original school with Boston University credits.
“Each center had a director and two faculty members. My role was to make sure the teaching quality at those centers met BU standards. I did that for two years, and it meant a lot of travel.”
As was often the case with Condy tackling a new professional endeavor, his next move came from an unforeseen opportunity.
“I got a call out of the blue from John Lukas, who used to be the director at White Oak (Conservation) and was on the Fossil Rim board of directors at the time,” Condy said. “He asked me if I’d like to come down to Texas. I told him I was about to go to the SFS centers in Kenya for four weeks, but to please call me back. I hadn’t been back but a day or two and he was on the line again.”
Condy agreed to come down and check out the wildlife center in November 2002. He would spend three days at Fossil Rim, being interviewed by the staff, volunteers and former owner Krystyna Jurzykowski.
“I liked what I saw, in terms of the Africa-like landscape, but after talking to the staff it was clear this place was in dire financial straits,” he said. “But eventually, on Christmas Eve 2002, I reached an agreement with the board to take the executive director position.”
Right after he arrived for good in February 2003, Condy attended his first Fossil Rim board meeting.
“They told me that, in their minds, there were only two options – close Fossil Rim down or give it back to Ms. Jurzykowski – only three years after the park become a nonprofit entity,” he said. “I’d just moved here only to be told that. I asked them to give me a chance – give it a couple of months.”
Condy figured the first thing he needed to do was hunker down and make a thorough assessment of the finances to understand exactly what the wildlife center was up against.
“My second week here, (then-Chief Financial Officer) Pam (Adams) walked into my office, pale as a sheet, and I knew something was wrong,” he said. “She said ‘We’ve got a problem. We can’t pay salaries; we have no money.’”
Condy later identified that moment as the low point in his quest to see Fossil Rim thrive. While there were more than 100 employees at that time, he would reduce that figure down to about 60 over the next two years.
“We needed $175,000 to get us through the next two payrolls, plus pay the electric bill and a few other things,” he said regarding the aftermath of Adams’ revelation. “We already had $500,000 in loans needing to be paid back. I talked to our board chairman, who ended up getting that $175,000 from Krystyna – half as a gift and half as a loan.”
While her assistance kept Fossil Rim going at that point, Condy said he did have to cut salaries significantly in late 2003 and make another notable reduction a year later.
“Tourism was nowhere near where it needed to be, and the marketing department among others during my early years here didn’t embrace tourism as the only way Fossil Rim could survive financially,” Condy said. “We had a $500,000 line of credit and we were using it up every slow winter season. We got down to $5 in that account at one point; it was touch-and-go. Those were tough times.”
Fortunately, he said 2005 went a bit better financially with another incremental bump in 2006.
“We began to build the tourism trade; it was the only way to reach a self-sustaining future,” Condy said. “Not just through the admission fees, but the gift store, too. When I got here, it was only open on weekends, but we got it open daily during Spring Break 2003 to help pay for the $280,000 in merchandise on its shelves that vendors had not been paid for. At that time, the Overlook Café, The Lodge and Foothills Safari Camp were also only open on weekends.
“Bit by bit, we got these facilities open (daily) to bring in more money. Later, we started doing guided tours as a new source of revenue. We began to push Wolf Ridge education more, too.”
According to Condy, a crucial moment for Fossil Rim’s sustainability occurred in 2008.
“Until then, Fossil Rim as a nonprofit was operating on leased property,” Condy said. “What if the landowner decides to kick you off? Plus, it wasn’t yet self-sufficient financially. Put those two together and it was very difficult to persuade donors to get involved (when we cannot promise the future).
“The board had been quite successful in persuading various individuals to make loans to Fossil Rim, so those also had to be paid off. Eventually, most of them very kindly and graciously gifted their loans.
“When Krystyna donated the land in 2008, that was probably the biggest development of all in my time here. Then, Fossil Rim became landowner and operator. Now, it is also financially self-sufficient, so it is much more attractive from a donor point-of-view.”
Beyond the finances, Fossil Rim has changed in many other ways over Condy’s 14-plus years.
“The new roads, new Nature Store, new parking lot at the Overlook, plus Wolf Ridge (Nature Camp) has been upgraded a lot,” he said. “We have a lot more tour vans now. I remember the first one. The Lodge and (Foothills) Safari Camp have been revamped considerably.
“Support Services (department) has a lot more equipment now. At one point, it seemed like everything was fixed with baling wire.”
Two plots of land have been purchased during Condy’s tenure – covering 200 acres – near The Lodge and the Jim Jackson Intensive Management Area.
“The animal population dropped to about half of what it is now, because they were being sold essentially to keep the lights on before and during my first couple of years,” Condy said. “During my time here, we have added Hartmann’s mountain zebras, aoudad, dama gazelle, black-footed cats, mountain bongo, Przewalski’s horses, roan and possibly a few others.”
The general improvement of Fossil Rim’s situation in recent years definitely helped Condy make his latest decision.
“Now, Fossil Rim has a healthy economy, it is back over 100 employees and tourism has expanded enormously thanks to our marketing department,” he said. “And through its species conservation work, it has a national and international image and reputation out there in the big, wide world. There comes a time in life when it’s time to consider your situation. I am in my 70th year now, had a full and interesting life across three continents, an outstanding wife for more than half of it and three fine children and their families, so I’m happy to be taking a break from October until January before returning in an advisory, ambassadorial, part-time role.”
COO Kelley Snodgrass will be stepping in as interim executive director. Snodgrass has worked at Fossil Rim since it opened in 1984.
“I feel good about Kelley stepping in,” Condy said. “He’ll be good. He’s worked here since college, so he knows just about everything there is to know about Fossil Rim and has been through its ups and downs since Tom Mantzel started the place.”
On that note, Condy expanded on the many staff members he has worked with over the years.
“It’s a wonderful staff,” he said. “I’ve always been impressed by their deep commitment and dedication in all departments. This kind of operation in the countryside – people who work in this rural setting do it for a cause – conservation of selected species and outdoor education of children, which are two crucial pursuits for a future in which the natural world will hopefully be considered very precious.
“They aren’t just here for a job. That approach promotes dedication, and you see that in the staff across all the different activities here; it’s a great thing.”
Regarding a facility centered on conservation, it is appropriate that “protect” was on Condy’s mind.
“Protect the cause,” he said. “Protect the spirit of Fossil Rim. That’s what people are here for, such as (longtime Animal Care staffers) Kelley, Arnulfo (Muro), Adam (Eyres), Janet (Johnson) and Mary Jo (Stearns). Turnover at the senior level is very low here, and it says something – people are working for the mission.
“I enjoyed and was privileged to have a staff of different generations and both genders; we are about 60-percent female. The staff members here have so many different skills; it’s invigorating to witness.”
As it turns out, the range of topics covering all things Fossil Rim has brought great enjoyment to Condy during his tenure.
“Fossil Rim is much more diverse than it would appear from the outside – so many departments come together,” he said. “That’s part of why I’ve enjoyed this so much. I get information on Nature Store sales, and then an hour later I’m talking with someone about a species conservation matter.
“The next hour it could be visiting with a potential donor, then it’s about finances, and maybe later that day it’s about a marketing campaign. The variety has been nice.”
It has certainly been a roller coaster ride for Condy in his time at Fossil Rim, but not unlike his years in Antarctica, he stayed determined and focused on the task at hand to see the facility through its darkest hours.
Protect the cause, the spirit and the mission. He practiced what he preached.
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate