Couple Cancels Trip to Own Wildlife Park

Article excerpt

FOSSIL RIM WILDLIFE CENTER, Texas _ A funny thing happened to northeasterners Jim Jackson and Christine Jurzykowski on their way to sail around the world. They ended up circumnavigating antelope poop in Somervell County instead.

But the result of their improbable detour is no joke. The couple's decision to stake their fortunes hereabouts has given vigorous new life to a unique institution that a few years ago was as endangered as many of the animal species it seeks to preserve.

Their personal resources and hands-on leadership have helped sustain and develop, on the same scenic 3,000-acre spread off U.S. Hwy. 67 four miles south of Glen Rose and an hour from Fort Worth, an uncommonly appealing tourist attraction and one of the leading critter conservation centers in the world.

While the drive-through animal park, with its giraffes, zebras, rhinos, cheetahs and multitudes of exotic hooved animals, has charmed visitors for most of a decade and become increasingly popular, attracting 83,000 visitors last year, the center's much-less-visible conservation efforts have remained little known to the public.

In just a few years, though, Fossil Rim has gained national and international notice and respect within the conservation community for its successes in captive breeding, its collaborative efforts in global conservation and its initiatives in conservation management, education, research and training.

Fossil Rim is dedicated to the proposition that conservation can _ indeed, must _ pay its own way. And to that end it operates not only the drive-through animal park with related food and drink and gift shop concessions but also luxury safari camps and varied horseback excursions. It also sells animals to zoos and private collections.

The center also is the hub of a growing network of support organizations and volunteer efforts keyed to various aspects of conservation.

Profit _ when and if there is any _ never will be the end at Fossil Rim; it will be the means of continuing and expanding the institution's conservation work, say owners Jackson and Jurzykowski, who envision the center as a model for similar operations elsewhere in this country and abroad.

"We're not self-sustaining yet, but we're on the way," said Jackson, who with Jurzykowski, his wife and partner, has poured millions of dollars of their own into acquiring, expanding and operating the center over the past five years.

Fossil Rim is the product of two controlling visions _ parallel and compatible in many respects but destined to clash bitterly before a resolution that enabled the institution to move forward.

The first vision was that of Fort Worth oil executive Tom Mantzel, without whom there would be no Fossil Rim.

He founded what then was Waterfall Ranch in the 1970s as an outlet for his fascination with exotic wildlife, stocked it with many of the animals that still live there, launched educational programs, started the public drive-through as a means of supporting the facility and began the captive breeding of endangered species that remains Fossil Rim's primary reason for being.

But even as Mantzel's ambitions for the renamed Fossil Rim Ranch were expanding, his ability to sustain the facility financially was declining precipitously in the oil-industry debacle and Texas' general economic slide in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Jurzykowski, globe-trotting entrepreneurs, sailing enthusiasts and dedicated environmentalists, had begun to seek more direct personal involvement in the conservation cause they had suppkrted financially and in spirit for years.

From very different backgrounds of independent success, Jackson and Jurzykowski had met when they lived close together in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and were friends for years before their relationship deepened.

Jackson had dropped out of college in his native West Virginia to join the Army during the Vietnam War, in which he served as a helicopter pilot _ after training at Fort Wolters in Palo Pinto County and frequently flying over the area he one day would call home _ and was wounded. …