For Texas Rancher Tom Mantzel, Home on the Range Is Where the Zebra and the Antelope Play

updated 03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 01:00AM

Like any good ol' Texas cowhand, Tom Mantzel ignores the boot-sucking mud squishing beneath his feet when it's feeding time down at the Fossil Rim Ranch. Never mind that the herd stomping impatiently to be fed is a group of rare Grevy's zebras from Kenya. Zebras? In central Texas? Well, what about black rhinos, addax and oryx antelope, waterbuck and wildebeest, to say nothing of ostriches and giraffes? Such creatures make Mantzel's 1,500-acre spread look more like a landlocked Noah's Ark than a typical Texas ranch with its requisite horses, sheep and cattle.

Which is probably as it should be, because there is very little that is typical about Mantzel, a 37-year-old bachelor who for 11 years has taken it on himself to provide a bucolic sanctuary for 20 rare and endangered species from Africa. "Every year I seem to bite off more than I can chew," he says. "Right now, we're fencing off several acres where we'll have our first 12 cheetahs this spring."

As if to offer some rationale for his odd menagerie, Mantzel suggests that "this is an extension of my childhood love for animals. Basically, I'm just a kid." He also happens to be president and owner of Pride Energy, a natural-gas company in Fort Worth. His Monday to Friday dealings in the city help pay for the care and feeding of the 1,000 animals he keeps at Fossil Rim. Last year Mantzel spent $60,000 to bring a rhino and its mate to this country aboard a 747 as part of a program by zoo and conservation groups to save threatened species. To help pay for the rhinos' tickets, Mantzel ran fund raisers, including a $100-a-plate jungle costume party for 350 people at the ranch.

"You can put just so much food in your stomach and you can't wear but one suit of clothes at a time," Mantzel says philosophically. "No amount of money can buy a two-inch rainfall in the middle of a hot August. Here I can drive out to a pasture and sit for hours and get a rush unlike anything I've ever experienced in the business world."

Mantzel's efforts have earned him the respect of preservation groups. He is the first game rancher admitted to the Species Survival Program of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums and the only rancher sanctioned by AAZPA to raise Grevy's, considered the most beautiful of all zebras. In addition, the International Wildlife Foundation bestowed on him its annual conservation award a few years ago for helping restore dwindling herds of addax antelope.

Mantzel has no trouble maintaining and even breeding exotic creatures in his home state because the Texas climate and terrain are very much like the animals' homeland. "It's just a matter of their getting used to the reversed seasons," he says. Since last November, 18 addax and gemsbok antelope, 11 waterbuck and three oryx have been born on the ranch. Although he owns 90 percent of the animals outright, his goal is preservation, not profit. "This isn't the kind of business you get into to make money," he says.

Mantzel is no stranger to money making, however. Born in Dallas and raised in Austin, he peddled doughnuts door-to-door as a third-grader to finance his first exotic creatures—tropical fish. Later, he worked his way through Texas Christian University and peddled custom-made suits after graduation. Mantzel made such a hit with one customer, Dick Lowe, president of Fort Worth's American Quasar Petroleum Co., that Lowe offered him a job raising investment capital. That, helped on by his own smart investments, brought him his first million. He drives a Mercedes 450 SL and lives in a contemporary brick house located near the prestigious Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth.

But his dearest possession is Fossil Rim, 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Mantzel runs the ranch with a staff of four, and his unusual home on the range makes some daunting demands. Once he was attacked by an oryx, a 450-pound African antelope with long, saberlike horns capable of killing a lion. "I looked up and immediately realized he was unhappy I had invaded his turf," Mantzel recalls, putting it mildly. The oryx charged three times and on its third try tore a gaping hole in Mantzel's thigh. "I was on the ground, pretty helpless," he says, but his two spaniels, Polly and Daisey, pounced on the oryx, biting its hind legs long enough for Mantzel to haul himself up a tree. A week later he limped out of the hospital.

Mantzel is now organizing a youth information center where he and his staff will teach kids about wildlife preservation. He has already opened the ranch for drive-through tours ($4.50 for adults, $2.50 for kids under 12), but he bristles at the thought of going commercial. "We'll never have hippo boat rides or stuffed animals that kids can sit on to have their pictures taken," he says. Visitors are not permitted out of their cars, and there's no guarantee they'll see every species. (Some areas, like the huge, fenced pasture where the black rhinos roam, are strictly off-limits.) Even so, Mantzel says, the visitors enjoy seeing the animals "running free instead of in cages."

He himself gets as close to his prehistoric-looking pals as they'll allow. The rhinos love having their master scratch behind their ears, and on any weekend night, if you're in the right place, you may catch a glimpse of three creatures lumbering through the bluestem grass—two very fit rhinos inside the fence, and one panting, happy millionaire outside. "I've always had a fear of going into a pine box before I've accomplished anything," Mantzel says. "This is the avenue I've decided on to give something back to the world."

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