After 13 months as Fossil Rim Tours Coordinator, Will Baker is teaching the wonders of the wildlife facility to new audiences.
On June 3, he took on the role of Fossil Rim Visitor Programs Supervisor. After accepting the position within the education department, Baker stayed with the tours department for one more month to help during the busy visitor season.
“I now work with any sort of onsite programming that doesn’t require an advance reservation,” he said. “If there is an activity, presentation, or program happening at the Front Gate or the Overlook, I try to engage people and make sure they enjoy whatever we have going on. It’s an opportunity to continue building that conservation message, even for our drive-thru guests.”
That is only part of Baker’s new adventure, as he is now the go-to person for Fossil Rim’s volunteer program, which is significant with more than four dozen people.
“During my time in tours, it was a very interconnected department with the rest of our staff and a significant part of our volunteer base,” Baker said. “There are some very experienced volunteers in tours, so it was interesting to learn from them, especially about the history of Fossil Rim and how things have progressed to where they are today. At the same time, when new volunteers came on board, I wanted to help them engage with their tour guests. Educating somebody else is very gratifying – ‘teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’.”
Now, Baker can get better acquainted with the portion of volunteers who are not involved with guided tours.
“This new position is exciting because I’m working directly with current volunteers, but also helping the volunteer program continue to grow,” he said. “Guided tours are only one aspect of what our volunteers do; they help out all over the park. I want to help them develop as environmental educators who can assist with events and projects, plus I just want to make sure they feel comfortable here and know they can always contact me for whatever reason. I’m the point person for our staff when they need volunteer help in any department.
“I might have specific volunteers in mind, or I can notify our entire volunteer base about that opportunity. Also, when people approach Fossil Rim about volunteering for the first time, I help them with paperwork, figure out when they are available, and determine what activities are a good fit for them. If a large group wants to volunteer, I need to find a task that can accommodate them.”
The year-plus as tours coordinator was very valuable to Baker as he moves forward.
“One of the things I’ve most appreciated about my time here is the opportunity to learn how much conservation work can be done by a single organization,” he said. “When you look at the breadth of different programs we have at Fossil Rim – critically endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens and Mexican gray wolves, those Texas species, but also scimitar-horned oryx on the other side of the world. We are helping grow these species populations, but through aspects like guided tours, we are working with the public and empowering them in conservation action. Being an environmentalist from an early age, it is very cool to me that you can come to Fossil Rim and see animals worth protecting, but you can also see a lot of effort being put into that protection.”
Giving guided tours was a great opportunity for Baker to hone the process of getting his message across to guests.
“It doesn’t matter how much information you know if you can’t connect people to that information,” Baker said. “Being a tour guide drew on my skills as a natural interpreter. For example, we were recently giving a Discovery After Dark tour. Right in front of us were some scimitar-horned oryx and wildebeest. I began talking about the oryx and how Fossil Rim is part of their reintroduction effort, but really, everyone was tuning me out because there were two baby wildebeest playing.
“If I went information-heavy and just continued on with the reintroduction, it might not have stuck with them, so instead we talked about how important play is for a young animal and spent some quiet time getting to enjoy two little wildebeest butting their heads together. To me, being a tour guide wasn’t just about knowledge, it was applied knowledge. Teach people something they can connect to what they are seeing.”
A native of Plano, Baker graduated from Carroll University in Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior.
Regarding a career where he’ll often be teaching children, Baker talked about the impact some nature-based, childhood experiences had on him.
“I see myself as an environmental educator who, as a child, had those critical life experiences that influenced me – going to the (Holifield Science) Learning Center in Plano, or getting to see the different animal species at the (Sunset) Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas where my grandparents lived,” he said. “Getting to go on trips to Colorado where you are out there walking in those natural spaces. Those experiences led me to the passion and invigorated spirit I have now to want to share the incredible connection that I feel toward nature with future generations. That’s one of the best parts of being an educator.”
While much of his work now will focus on endangered species, the animals that first impacted Baker’s early days are now extinct.
“It all started with dinosaurs,” he said. “Jurassic Park came out a year after I was born. I learned more about them over the years, and I got into paleontology. Nowadays, I’m interested in animal taxonomy, animal skulls, biofacts, and that sort of thing.
“As far as modern animals, I’ve always enjoyed dogs and seeing how they play off of each other, as well as how they play off of humans. That’s where my interest in animal behavior came from.”
What about his favorite animals at Fossil Rim?
“In my heart, the answer is Mexican gray wolves,” he said. “There’s something special about a wolf, which I learned when I lived up north. But, I could sit out there and watch the Hartmann’s mountain zebras all day. From an animal behavior standpoint, they are kicking and biting each other, showing body language with ears and tails about who is in charge – just being able to watch all their interactions is really cool.”
Baker shared his thought process about when he saw the visitor programs supervisor position was open.
“I was at a crossroads that a lot of animal people come to,” he said. “Did I want to do animal care or find another avenue to put this knowledge of the environment to good use? Through my time doing internships and certainly being a tour guide, I felt that my skills as an advocate for the natural world had grown. Environmental education was something I was thinking more about, plus this position would allow me to continue on with the volunteers I already had a rapport with.
“I really enjoy the public interface and guest interaction, as well as the goal of leaving them with a conservation message. This position is a good fit for what I want to do in my career, plus how I can help Fossil Rim continue to grow. Having a multi-faceted career is going to be a good thing, because I’m very much a busy body.”
Baker joins Fossil Rim Director of Education Jennifer Arledge in the department, as well as James Morgan, Mark Phillips, and Andrew Bullard.
“One thing I know about working with those four – every day I’m going to be laughing at some point,” Baker said. “We are an energetic group and incredibly flexible. We are able to take on any sort of challenge, because we are willing to help each other and figure out how the puzzle will fit together for whatever situation arises. Planning what roles we will each fill to make an event work isn’t a contentious affair, which I enjoy.”
In the near future, the education department will make one more new addition.
“The most important thing in any new situation is to go in with an open mind and never be afraid to ask questions,” Baker said, regarding advice he might share.
Last, but not least, Baker was asked what message he wants to bestow upon the visiting public.
“Anytime you visit Fossil Rim, always leave yourself enough time to visit the Overlook area for a while,” he said. “That way, you can visit the Children’s Animal Center and learn about the species there. We also have trails up there for hiking, which I’m not sure everyone realizes.
“Never hesitate to ask any questions to our staff. Whether it’s about an animal or our facilities, if you are interested, we will get you the best answer. At the end of the day, I’m very interested in learning and how people learn, so it is no wonder I ended up as an educator.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate