Everyone remembers the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the wizard was busy behind the curtain. While he proved to be a fraud, the wide variety of ways the support services department keeps the gears turning in the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center machine is very real. Those staff members are behind the curtain in a way, as most guests focus on the animals without wondering how the conservation center motors along while open 362 days a year and functioning every single day and night.
The job description for staffer Daniel Branham is representative of the diverse skills needed in support services, considering he is support services co-manager (maintenance), agricultural resources manager and landscape manager. Branham talked about how crucial versatility is in the department.
“We were planning on building fence (Jan. 5),” Branham said. “Well, there was a huge mud hole in the road in the IMA (Intensive Management Area), so everybody had to stop what they were doing and go fix the road. To get these jobs done, you need to know how to run the equipment. Out here, you don’t know what you’re going to need to do on a day-to-day basis.
“I look at HelpDesk and work order tickets (submitted by Fossil Rim staffers) daily, which could include anything from changing a light bulb to building a bird flight, and try to line out some stuff that different people can take care of. We don’t know everything, but everybody knows enough to make it work, and we’re pretty good about teaching each other no matter the job. Whoever on staff knows the most about a given project will take the lead, so it is a team effort.”
Speaking of projects, Louis Pienaar is support services co-manager (projects) and formerly a mechanical engineer. He arrived at Fossil Rim in 2007, Branham followed in 2009 and both men have been in their current positions for one-and-a-half years.
“Without our donors and those who visit our park, we wouldn’t be here,” Pienaar said while discussing a major donation that spearheaded the first project during his tenure at Fossil Rim. “Over the years, I’ve seen more of a focus develop on our customers through marketing and such. We really see the value of the customer, and that’s nice to know. Educating the public on what we’re trying to do is so important.”
Cast of characters
There are eight other employees in support services. Ernie Adams is the mechanic at Fossil Rim.
“Ernie is so patient with everyone,” Pienaar said. “He takes his time and figures out how to do the job right, which I really appreciate.”
Rowdy Brown is Fossil Rim’s electrician.
“Rowdy has good all-around electrical skills,” Pienaar said. “When you need a quick fix in a given crisis situation, Rowdy will come up with a solution right then. He can deal with issues for plumbing, electrical – just about anything.”
There are two Jerrys on the staff – Monroe and Lumpkins.
“Jerry Monroe is our remodeling guy,” Pienaar said. “He does jobs he’s working on neater, nicer and more professional than most. He’s very good at making sure a job is entirely done.
“Jerry Lumpkins is here every weekend, and our customers love him. I appreciate that if he doesn’t know how to do something he calls to make sure. He’s very dependable.”
Cruz Espino’s day-to-day contributions haven’t gone unnoticed.
“Cruz just gets the job done, whether it’s lights, trash or anything that needs tending to,” Pienaar said. “He quietly does a lot for this organization.”
Trent Sandlin brings some diverse skills really appreciated in the department.
“Brazos Webb did an awesome job and recently left for the Air Force, but we are fortunate that Trent stepped in for him,” Pienaar said. “He has fit in easily. Trent brings welding knowledge and strong general ability with a lot of skills.”
Pienaar is impressed with the ever-growing contributions made by Catherine Bise.
“Cat started off as a general assistant in support, but she’s developed into a phenomenal asset in the last year,” he said. “She now handles everything regarding wastewater treatment and still handles all of her original duties with supplies and such. If we need something for a job, she goes and gets it.”
A recent high school graduate, Kyle Bonesteel has learned a lot since he joined the team.
“Kyle helps with mowing, digging or whatever we need,” Pienaar said. “He’s green, but he’s willing and able. He learns as he goes. It gives me huge satisfaction to see people grow, and I share what I know with everyone so they can do well for Fossil Rim.”
Pienaar and Branham each work with all of the other support staffers depending on the duties needed.
“Daniel has so many skills when it comes to landscaping and farming activities,” Pienaar said. “He and I will help with each other’s projects when we have the chance.”
Pienaar made sure to mention one other employee at Fossil Rim.
“Genni (Link) may not be in our department, but without her help support services wouldn’t function,” Pienaar said. “We need money and resources to get things done, and Genni handles the materials to be ordered.”
Projects of pride
A current undertaking for support services is rebuilding one of the flights at the Attwater’s prairie chicken (APC) facility so that cranes can live there. Creating the new APC hatching and incubation facility inside the Jim Jackson Intensive Management Area (IMA) was actually Pienaar’s first project at Fossil Rim.
“We got input from everyone and their requirements,” Pienaar said. “Then, I designed the building and sought out their approval so we could hire the subcontractors and start doing the work. When I started here, the finances that we had to work with weren’t what they are now. We got a really large donation, $250,000 I believe, and it allowed us to really design the building the way we needed it with quality materials so that it turned out very nice.
“We couldn’t get that project done without the donation. The APC chicks used to be raised in the smaller buildings that are now off to the side, and I know our APC specialists are appreciative.”
Pienaar detailed numerous projects completed during his tenure, including the construction of the new Nature Store, plus a cheetah facility inside the IMA and aviaries at the Children’s Animal Center to name a few.
“A recent project we completed was the wastewater treatment plant that was installed for the new Nature Store,” he said. “This treatment plant was required to meet the greater demands of this larger Nature Store. It doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s a huge benefit in terms of dependable operation and minimal impact on the environment.”
Also very proud of the Nature Store upgrade, Branham referenced a project that stood out in his mind.
“During the winter years ago, the floor of the (Overlook) Café needed replacement,” Branham said. “It was a 15-foot drop once you stepped out of the kitchen, and we were worried about the stability of the building. We built concrete walls under the building and hauled about 30 dump truck loads of sand – one wheelbarrow at a time – to fill the hole.
“Every person in support (services) took their turn with the wheelbarrow. That project saved the café, and now it’s there to stay.”
On the road again
The roads inside Fossil Rim are a constant challenge. The main drive was built in 1984 and time, weather and traffic have not been its friend. It is “rustically charming,” and although comparable to the roads one would find in the open, rural landscape of Africa, it is in need of a large capital outlay for an upgrade.
“We’re trying to keep them in shape the best we can,” Branham said. “This year has been a hurtful one on these roads with all the rain. (Jan. 5) we had the mud hole I mentioned that was waist-deep and 50 yards long, which was (hindering) access to the black rhino barn.”
Pienaar said action will definitely be taken.
“The roads are a huge issue, and we’ve been thinking about them for years,” he said. “We have a committee that is going to make the call on how we address them. I think we have a lot of options.”
The support staff enjoys tackling a project from scratch.
“(Fossil Rim Director of Education) Tessa (Ownbey) wanted to get a new kiosk made for the front gate area, and I’m really pleased with how it’s coming together,” Pienaar said. “It’s primarily made of steel.”
On that note, Pienaar mentioned a transition taking place in material preference for projects.
“There was a phase Fossil Rim went through where everything used to be made out of wood, but wood products require a lot of maintenance or they won’t last long,” he said. “We may use a combination of metal and wood on some items, but I prefer metal because we get the increased durability.”
Even so, woodworking projects still address a wide array of needs at Fossil Rim.
“In late December, we helped with birdhouses for the (Children’s Animal Center) birds,” Branham said. “We cut all the lumber and (CAC Supervisor) Amber (Wiedeman) put them together. We always assist with intern woodworking projects.
“We build shelters like the cheetah houses. If we need something built out of lumber, we always try to use the scrap lumber lying around the shed instead of buying new lumber. We really try to pinch pennies down here, but we still like to get it done right, so we’ll spend a little extra in the name of quality.”
If the support services department needs a part for a particular project, staffers will try to make it before deciding to buy it.
“When it comes to welding, we do anything from building gates to repairing the rhino pens,” Branham said. “When rhinos get rambunctious, they can crack a pipe. One year, we built a giraffe feeder.”
When support services staffers know the situation calls for it, they will bring in outside help.
“There may be some things that come up where we don’t have the skills, equipment or the time to complete a job,” Pienaar said. “I learned that you don’t want to try to do everything yourself because it can lead to huge expense. For things like AC repair, major vehicle repair, large cement foundations, major electrical repair and some plumbing jobs we’ll subcontract those jobs out.”
Branham pointed to the bright side of such assistance.
“We try to use local contractors when we can because it helps Glen Rose,” he said. “We can do nearly anything if we have to, but you have to factor in whether or not you can finish in a timely manner while still taking care of the day-to-day issues.”
Hay there buddy
Mowing and landscaping is done on about 20 acres at Fossil Rim to address places like the front gate, the Overlook, Foothills Safari Camp, Wolf Ridge Nature Camp, The Lodge, administration buildings and numerous well houses. Meanwhile, 105 of the 1,800 acres are devoted to hay production.
“We cut and bale hay on our own, because we couldn’t afford to hire someone and we want to ensure the quality for our animals,” Branham said. “We have the equipment, some of which was donated. In the years I’ve been here, we’ve only had to buy hay once due to drought.”
The hay process at Fossil Rim generally extends from the first of March to early November.
“We cut hay every 21-30 days,” Branham said. “A really dry summer will mean we have to buy hay. We set a goal of 5,000 square bales and 500 round bales. We haven’t met it yet, but we nearly always have enough to get us through the year.”
Branham explained that 30-40 percent of the hay used annually is grown outside of Fossil Rim property.
“What that allows us to do is get our square bales from Fossil Rim property and get our round bales from surrounding land,” he said. “We have a couple of property owners who split their hay with us 50-50, while Dinosaur Valley State Park is one of two properties that allow us to keep all the hay.”
Chipping in during hay season at Fossil Rim extends beyond Branham’s department.
“When it comes to hauling hay, you’ll see everybody who works at Fossil Rim involved,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they throw five bales – I love to see everybody from different departments out in the hay fields.”
Fossil Rim on four wheels
The support services department maintains 45 vehicles plus trailers and various related equipment.
“The tour vehicles were previously customized by (neighboring) High Hope (Sanctuary), but we plan to handle that from start to finish for future vehicles in the coming months,” Branham said. “We have done some modifications to current vehicles after the original changes made at High Hope.”
It’s not out of the ordinary for a visiting vehicle to enter Fossil Rim and need a favor from a support services staffer.
“Taking gas to stranded drivers in the park, and even driving some home to Fort Worth or Dallas, is about putting the customer first,” Branham said. “We feel like if we treat our guests well, they’re going to come back and see us when they get their vehicle fixed. We’ve even taken people on a tour in our work trucks while they wait on a tow truck. It could be us stranded somewhere one day, hoping we would receive help.
“At least one visitor runs out of gas on most days during the spring, summer and fall, as well as weekends. Usually, we all try to keep a two-gallon gas can in our work trucks, and then whoever is closest to a stranded vehicle will go help.”
Eye on the future
There are so many projects on Pienaar’s mind looking down the line. Some just have a lengthier timetable than others.
“I look forward to the upgrades we will make for the (Children’s Animal Center) and the EcoCenter,” he said. “We already have designs for new versions of the animal clinic, front gate area, intern house, administration office and Wolf Ridge Camp. We want to move the (Foothills) Safari Camp to The Lodge and create a RV camp in the park.
“It’s just a matter of when it all happens. We’re doing a great job with what we have at the moment, but we can do a lot more.”
With so much to do and with so many facilities and vehicles across such a large property, having all of the support staff present helps. But, like any department at any business – even one with such a purposeful mission – staff members need time off.
“If someone is sick or on vacation, we feel it, but we cover each other pretty well,” Branham said. “Unless we’re in the midst of a big project, vacation days are taken as needed. You don’t live to work; you work to live.”
Like Pienaar, Branham recognizes the contributions of everyone in the department.
“This is the best group of guys and girl I’ve ever worked with,” Branham said. “They are willing to put in the effort, even if we need to start at 6 a.m. or we stay until 9 p.m. They love what they do, and they’re good at it.
“They do whatever it takes to get the job done, and every support services staff member is critical to our conservation work and fulfilling our mission. I say this is the best job I’ve ever had because of this staff.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate