For Fossil Rim staff, animals, and guests, an emphasis on safety makes the facility better for everyone.
Safety/Security Officer Joel Wood, in his fourth year at Fossil Rim, discussed the progress he has seen in that regard.
“It’s been a learning curve for me,” he said. “We’ve made great progress in our safety and security that I’ve witnessed since I joined the staff. The amount of rule infractions I see now is way less than my first year. I’ve learned to deescalate conflict a lot better.
“A kind, friendly approach works better than a forceful approach. Ideally, you can make the guest be compliant, but have him or her think it was their idea. Then, they are more likely to visit again someday.”
Wood has appreciated the opportunity to learn from Fossil Rim Safety/Security Manager Neal Bieler.
“Neal has 35-plus years in law enforcement and as a game warden,” Wood said. “He’s been a big plus for Fossil Rim. Neal has been a great mentor and become a good friend. I know I can always call him with questions, because he’s seen it all.
“Sometimes, situations come up that you can’t train for, but Neal will know what to do. We do rotating schedules to keep a consistent watch out here.”
Wood talked about his background before arriving at Fossil Rim in 2017.
“I went to high school in (nearby) Glen Rose, and my wife was born and raised here,” he said. “We spent most of our adult lives in southern Louisiana and moved back here in 2008. I worked in construction most of my life as a corporate manager. I’d had the safety training and management courses, but now I’m a Level III Commissioned Security Officer.
“Glen Rose is my hometown and I want to take pride in it, so it feels right to want to take care of Fossil Rim. It’s a personal thing. My first time to come out to Fossil Rim was actually for this job; this was all a new experience for me, so I’ve just tried to learn as much as possible.”
Speaking of learning, does Wood have a favorite species at Fossil Rim?
“The (greater) kudu,” he said. “The way they look and walk – they mind their own business.”
Wood is also the Fossil Rim Safety/Security Committee Co-chair along with Kristen Hannah.
“The committee began in 2018 and I started as co-chair with (former Senior Carnivore Specialist Alex) Sharkey, and now Kristen has taken her place,” Wood said. “I have to give most of the credit to those two women. They’ve done a lot of work to help improve our perimeter security and our safety training. We get ideas from all departments in meetings and then figure out how we can apply them in the park.
“We encourage each representative from the different departments to bring something to discuss pertaining to their area of the park; they bring up stuff I never thought of. How can we improve or resolve their issue? Then, we have advisors that take the key points from our meetings to the directors to discuss at the management level.”
It seems that involving all departments was a key decision.
“Meetings like that are important to get everyone involved, get everyone thinking about safety and security often – not just at the meeting,” Wood said. “Kristen sends out emails after each meeting so the staff knows exactly what has been discussed. They realize we are making improvements in the safety aspect.”
Officials in Glen Rose provide input on safety and security, as well.
“Chief Deputy Sheriff Dwayne Griffin, Fire Chief Mark Crawford, and 911 Administrator Tanya Epps all help with our training,” Wood said.
Wood discussed his daily duties and explained how he has a lot more than two eyes keeping track of what is happening at Fossil Rim.
“Most of my day is spent patrolling the park,” he said. “Anytime we have camps, especially overnight, or special functions at The Lodge or Safari Camp, I’m involved with that. As far as security, I just ensure that the guests are in compliance with the rules. Our whole staff is responsible for taking care of Fossil Rim, so I think we all keep safety in mind.
“We try to be proactive to make this a safe place for our staff, our guests, and the animals, too. The goal is to prevent anything (dangerous) from happening, but to be ready, in case it does. It is 1,800 acres out here, so I rely on the staff to keep me informed.
“I can’t watch everything. Sometimes, people are puzzled by how I knew something was going on, and it’s because of the radio calls I get from our staff.”
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and see what crucial rules Wood has to enforce most often.
“Getting out of the vehicle around giraffes and zebras is a major, common issue,” he said. “People try to get out of their vehicle all over the park, and I get those notifications. We have protocol for how those situations are handled.
“If you get out of your vehicle in close proximity to an animal, expect an automatic ejection from the park. You already received your warning at the (Admission Center office), plus there are signs throughout the park.”
Vehicle speed is a big deal; the posted speed limit is 15 mph.
“These animals can dart in front of your vehicle at any given time – especially all the deer we have here,” Wood said. “A lot of times, people might be riding in the back of a truck, kids might be standing up through the sunroof; if you are going over the speed limit and an animal darts in front of you, jerking the wheel could injure someone in the vehicle or you could hit an animal or another car. We like to see cars down around 10 mph.
“Slow down and enjoy the park. Expect that anything could be in the road, especially when you can’t see far ahead. Sitting on the windows, standing in the truck bed, sitting on bed rails, feeding food that isn’t authorized, driving on staff roads – I see all of those far too often.
“What if you killed an endangered animal because you fed it something that it can’t handle? Animal care (staff) takes a lot of time to feed these animals properly, and you don’t want to disrupt that.
“Don’t throw plastic or other trash out – an animal might eat it. Don’t yell, don’t play loud music – be respectful of everybody around you.”
For new guests, understanding the dos and don’ts is even more essential.
“If you have never been here before, it is even more important to pay close attention when you receive the Road Rules as you pay admission,” Wood said. “These rules are in place for your safety. Each one of them is based on things that have happened in the past and caused us to recognize that they are important. If you follow the rules, you’re going to have a pleasant day out here.”
With increased freedom comes increased responsibility. We need to be able to count on guests to do the right thing, no matter who is watching.
“You are seeing these animals in what is almost a natural habitat, roaming freely,” Wood said. “We are giving you additional freedom that you can’t get at a zoo, but we need you to avoid trying to take advantage of that.”
His fellow staff members are not the only ones providing extra watchful eyes out in the pastures.
“First of all, thank you to the guests who are following the rules,” he said. “Secondly, don’t approach an individual you see breaking the rules. Call our main number – (254) 897-2960 – to report what you’ve seen.
“I really appreciate when guests call us and report if something is wrong. That shows they care about the park.”
When it comes to the hustle and bustle of Spring Break at Fossil Rim, Wood is preaching one concept in particular.
“Bring your patience,” he said. “Expect to wait for some things. If you are patient, you’ll be fine and avoid conflict.
“It has been my experience that the more cars we have in the park, the more animals will be on the road. Most species should be visible during Spring Break.”
What is the best part about Wood’s job?
“My favorite experience is being able to reunite a lost child with his or her parents, which has happened a couple of times on busy days,” he said. “I’ve had members of our staff tell me we make them feel safer, and that’s great to hear.”
For comments regarding safety and security, email email@example.com. That feedback will be forwarded to the safety/security department.
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate