Jack Francis loved giving guided tours at Fossil Rim, and now he is teaching a new audience about the wonders of life on Earth.
The native of Dublin, Texas – a 40-mile drive from Fossil Rim – began teaching biology courses this year at Tarleton State University in nearby Stephenville.
“A lot of it is online teaching, but I am getting to teach some face-to-face labs as part of introductory courses,” Francis said. “When I was working toward my master’s degree, I did some teaching assistant jobs, which was helpful experience for my current position.”
It has obviously been an “interesting” time to make a professional change.
“This has certainly been different than how I envisioned my teaching career beginning, as far as teaching during a pandemic,” Francis said. “So little of it is actually done in person, and even then it is half of the class. It is weird to have some labs with 2-3 people, while most are done using Zoom conferencing with me pointing the camera at certain things.
“It has taken a lot of getting used to. If I can get through this time, it can provide me with all sorts of experience at adapting to my audience for any teaching position.”
The Texas Tech grad was a tour guide at Fossil Rim for nearly two years.
“Prior to that, when I was home during the summers as an undergrad, I would go out to Fossil Rim and work as a volunteer, learning from Stephanie (Longinotti) and Jan (Bussey),” he said. “After working with (Tours Manager) David (Whiting) as a volunteer, he offered me the tour guide job.”
As someone who has studied biology, did that somehow translate to his efforts as a tour guide?
“My undergrad studies were pretty broad, so I was able to use some of what I’d learned to give guided tours,” he said. “It certainly helped on Behind-The-Scenes Tours in particular when adults would ask really detailed questions. It was nice to be able to provide some answers I might not have been able to just a few years earlier. Since there are so many endangered species at Fossil Rim, I would make it a point to say, ‘It’s not just that one species we are trying to save; the way ecosystems work together, everything is vital to the lives of these animals and plants.’
“They all have their roles. I would talk about the broader concepts and how it related to conservation and endangered species.”
Not that he would be one to bring it up, but Francis received more than a few glowing reviews from guests about his efforts as a tour guide. It is one thing to know a lot about animals in general, but how was he able to talk in depth about the species at Fossil Rim?
“I’ve been studying and reading about animals my whole life,” he said. “If I did have a question about the specific animals at Fossil Rim, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) website was always helpful. For rhinos and wolves in particular, I’d already read a lot about them and had some experience with them before I started giving tours. When I would take a tour with David or hear a staff member talk about the animals, I would take some information from them to use later.
“When the vet staff or (Director of Animal Care) Adam (Eyres) would send out emails updating staff on certain animals, I would apply some of that to the guest experience. The things I really had to study were related to the history of the park. In addition to asking questions to Jan, Stephanie, or David, if I heard (Executive Director) Kelley (Snodgrass) talk about something related to Fossil Rim, that was always helpful and then you figure out how to apply it.”
How did Francis try to approach giving an enjoyable guided tour?
“A big part of making sure the guests enjoy the tour is being flexible based on that particular tour audience,” he said. “If you have a birthday party for a six-year-old and their friends, that’s going to be a lot different than a Behind-The-Scenes Tour for adults. Every tour is unique because obviously the specific people are always different. I know David emphasizes this, but it really does work if you approach a tour as a conversation.
“I never said exactly the same thing twice; there are certain fun facts you always want to include, especially with young kids. At the same time, a fact I use to get their attention won’t be something I go to for an adult audience. Kids especially remember the animals with names and I’d make sure to point those out; then they might go buy a giraffe toy and name it the same thing.
“Knowing your audience, but also knowing when to listen and allowing them to ask questions, is key. Sometimes, I would listen to guests talk among themselves and I’d hear what they were interested in.”
What were some animals he especially enjoyed highlighting when possible?
“I think I brought enthusiasm with all of the animals; of course you have your favorites,” Francis said. “Before COVID hit, going into the IMA (Jim Jackson Intensive Management Area) was special. My Behind-The-Scenes Tours always took a lot longer than the scheduled time. I’ve gotten to volunteer with wolf recovery programs in North America before, so I would talk about some of the things I did in that regard.
“Probably my favorite Fossil Rim animals are the white rhinos and I’ve been a rhino nut since I was three or four years old, so I really enjoyed when it was time to take tour guests there. You never knew when you would see him, but on a tour when I got to see ‘Ichabod’ (the resident sandhill crane) I would almost jump out of my seat.
“He could be anywhere in the park; I could tell his story and guests always seemed to enjoy it. As far as a particular location, being up on top of Cheetah Hill and looking out across the different pastures is gorgeous.
“No matter how many tours I gave, it was always a thrill to go see the animals in general. There might be some species I knew more about than others, but I wanted to help guests learn about everything related to Fossil Rim.”
Did Francis have a memorable moment to share from past tours?
“Every tour is different, not just the guests themselves as I mentioned, but what you see happen in the park,” he said. “I saw a lot of interesting animal behavior. You might hear a noise and wonder what made the sound.
“On some of the early morning (Behind-The-Scenes) tours, the wolves would be active – growling, tussling, and playing. Unique experiences where you sit there quietly and allow the guests to listen to them – those sure were great times.”
For those aspiring to follow in his tour guide footsteps, does Francis have some suggestions?
“For anyone interested in being a wildlife tour guide someday, learning as much as you possibly can about the relevant animals and landscape is a great place to start,” he said. “I have found in the scientific field that the more you learn about something, the more invested you become. You can always learn more and then be able to more effectively use that knowledge. You never know when something you learned will come in handy to share on a tour at Fossil Rim.”
On the other hand, at times sharing nothing but silence is best.
“Sometimes, you just let the animals be the stars and that means silently observing animal behavior,” he said. “That’s what the people are there for. You don’t have to talk the entire time. Different times of year can mean particular mating behaviors and people love to watch the cute babies, so just know when to observe instead of talk.
“Here and there, maybe explain why they are using certain behaviors. Sometimes, I would have a guest with a really nice camera who just wanted to take picture after picture, so you just sit back and let them do what they came for.
“I would encourage anyone who is interested to pursue a tour guide position. I have a lot of great memories about what the animals did during my tours, and I appreciated meeting a lot of nice guests, as well.”
For Fossil Rim newbies who have never taken a guided tour or even visited the facility at all, why should they consider going on a tour?
“It’s a great way to see the park because tours can use staff roads, plus you really get to learn a lot about the animals if you are interested in doing so,” Francis said. “I would always highlight what Fossil Rim is doing to save these species. When people were done with the tour, they would tell me what a great time they had. I’d encourage anyone to try it; sit back and enjoy a mini-safari where you come away knowing a lot more than when you arrived.”
As for Francis, he will carry these fond memories with him as he builds his career in higher education.
“I’m happy to get this formal teaching experience and I look forward to continuing my career,” he said. “Maybe conservation can become a larger focus of what I’m teaching my students. I appreciate having this opportunity.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate