Dateline Texas

Beasts of the (Oil) Field


The rich have a God-given duty to be stewards of the land; farmers and ranchers are the true environmentalists; big business is a friend to wildlife; hunting and killing animals is good for them. It’s a curious philosophy, especially for a zoo. Not in Fort Worth, however, where Ramona Bass, the wife of Cowtown billionaire Lee Bass, has finally realized her vision of a zoo that tells “the rest of the story.” In June the Fort Worth Zoo celebrated the opening of Texas Wild!–a $40 million amusement park/interactive museum/menagerie sponsored in part by the dairy, cattle, and oil industries. School field trips may never be the same.

Texas Wild! is a sort of Texas Disneyland, complete with a movie-set Western town and pseudo-mountains, caves, swamps and coastal marshes. There are lots of fake flowers, fake trees and fake animals. It also is heavy on chain restaurants and gift shops. The few living animals exist in camouflaged cages designed to give the appearance that their inhabitants are living side-by-side in natural habitat. The animals actually are separated by stainless steel mesh that is barely visible to the eye, but, workers say, razor-sharp to any creature that comes in contact with it. Among the many interactive areas is a play barn for kids, complete with fiberglass dairy cows paid for by the dairy industry. A screen mounted on the side of one cow shows videos that detail how the industry is active in “protecting our environment and our land,” and exhorting the kiddies to consume more dairy products: “Ask for butter, there’s no substitute”; “Just say cheese”; and “Drink milk.”

Other sponsors include cattle producers, timber companies and some of the biggest polluters in the state, including ExxonMobil and TUElectric, the North Texas utility. Their influence is hard to miss. Inside the 3,000-square-foot education center, older kids and adults learn how good ranch-management practices, deforestation and hunting have saved animals from extinction and how oil rigs provide homes for sea creatures. One display tells visitors that hunting and fishing contributed $130 million last year to wildlife conservation in the state, while hiking and camping contributed nothing. Another display teaches about the cool things that can be made out of animal parts–like dice, glue, dog food, piano keys, bubble gum, tennis balls, footballs, and hairbrushes (not to mention food). Throughout the exhibit, slogans remind visitors that “Texas cattlemen are the true wildlife heroes,” and “Private landowners are the key to the environment.” There’s no mention anywhere of clear cutting, pesticides, E. coli bacteria, oil spills or Texas’ status as the most polluted state in the nation.

Texas Wild! is Ramona Bass’s baby, and if oil looms large in her version of environmental history–and it does–perhaps that’s because oil made Ramona Bass who she is today. The daughter of rancher, oilman and avid hunter Arthur A. Seeligson, Ramona is the wife of Lee Bass–one of the billionaire Bass brothers and chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. The Bass empire was founded by Lee Bass’s great uncle, Sid Richardson, a wildcatter who struck it rich in the oilfields of West Texas. Bass and his three brothers inherited almost $3 million each from him. Investments in Texaco and Disney made them billionaires.

In a recent interview at the zoo, Ramona Bass explained her vision of oil and nature. “Ninety-seven percent of the land in Texas is privately owned, and most of it is concentrated in large ranches,” she explained. “The history of the oil business in Texas is that a lot of oil was found on those large privately owned tracts of land,” Bass said. “That was good because a lot of ranchers couldn’t survive on cattle alone; they would have been forced to divide up that land and sell it off. People would have moved onto it and built houses and destroyed wildlife habitat.” Therefore, Bass concluded, “The discovery of oil in Texas helped save wildlife and the environment.”

It’s only natural then, that oil companies should help fund Texas Wild! “If the oil companies want to participate, how can anyone say we don’t want to take their money?” Bass explains. “We have to employ everyone who wants to help. If we don’t, we’ll lose. We’re not talking about the Exxon Valdez, here. We’re talking about people who live on the land and love the land.” (Apparently the pro-industry, pro-hunting message isn’t the only one the Basses, deep-pocketed supporters of Republican causes, are promoting at Texas Wild! Visitors who look closely at the quaint boot hill cemetery inside the gates see, along with fake buzzards in the trees, a tombstone with the inscription: “Slick Willie: He stayed too long but now he’s gone.”)

Texas Wild!, according to Bass, is an attempt to educate visitors about the positive effects humans have on the Earth. “Let’s face it,” she said. “People are a part of nature.” Bass said the idea came to her 11 years ago, as her four-year-old daughter repeated things she’d learned at pre-school about endangered animals and pollution. Bass says she was horrified. “That’s the kind of philosophy we want to confront,” she said. “We are constantly bombarded with messages that hunters are bad and that the earth is doomed. Part of the idea behind Texas Wild! was that I wanted people to look a little farther than the negative messages they hear all the time.”

To critics, however, the new incarnation of the Fort Worth Zoo is less a dream than an example of a public-private partnership gone bad. Built in 1909, the zoo is billed as the oldest in the state in continuous operation. Although it is still owned and partially funded by the city, in 1991 the city council turned over management to the private Fort Worth Zoological Association, a group made up of members of the city’s most prestigious families. Ramona Bass is president of the Fort Worth Zoological Association and co-chairman (along with rancher and Texas baseball legend Nolan Ryan) of the Texas Wild! campaign, to which the Bass family donated $10 million of their own money. The Association’s 10-member executive committee, which includes Bass, along with several of her friends and Bass family retainers, appoints and reappoints itself.

To be sure, in many ways the Association’s management has been good for the Fort Worth Zoo. In fact, in this era of diminished public investment, it may have saved it from almost certain decline. In the decade since the takeover, donors have given millions of dollars to renovate existing structures, improve living conditions for the animals, and increase the zoo’s involvement in animal research and species survival programs. Ranked among the top zoos in the country, it attracts more than 1.5 million visitors every year.

But some wonder if the zoo and the city of Fort Worth have given Bass and other major donors too much influence over the zoo’s message. When plans for Texas Wild! were announced in 1999, the exhibit was denounced by officials from the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, a conservation group affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation, and the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. After the exhibit opened in June, Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States sent a letter to zoo officials urging them to revise the exhibit. Pacelle says the public looks to zoos to be caretakers of wildlife. “The debate is not so much about the ethics of sport hunting, but about the role that zoos play in promoting the use of animals,” he wrote. “Turning zoos into a collection of displays for industries or interest groups that cause harm to animals is simply not suitable for these institutions in this day and age.” Officials from other zoos around the country refused to comment for the record about Texas Wild!, except to say that it is “unusual.” Most had heard about it and several expressed personal reservations, but not for the record.

Officially, some zoos as well as mainstream conservation groups have jumped on the tell-the-rest-of-the-story bandwagon, especially since Ramona Bass announced in late August that she had collected donations of $200,000 to set up a Texas Wild! conservation fund in honor of her late father. That kind of clout–and money–apparently is hard to resist. Bass says she doubts the “local people” who belong to the Humane Society and other animal rights and environmental groups find the exhibit offensive and blames criticism on “political correctness, radical environmentalists and animal rights extremists.” “They need to face the fact. People aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “It would be impossible to say if people would just go away, then the animals and the world would be a perfect place.”

P.A. Humphrey is a writer living in Burleson.