State Aquarium Addition Will Save More Wildlife During Disasters

By David Sikes

Long before the big Texas freeze in February, planners at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi were well on their way to more than doubling the facility’s wildlife rescue-and-rehabilitation capacity.

Completion of the 27,000-square-foot Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue is expected in late 2022. 

The idea began after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, says Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. Since then, wildlife along the South Texas Gulf coast have endured challenges that demonstrate a growing need to enhance the aquarium’s operations.

The actual planning for this facility began in 2019, but much of the design work was accomplished during the COVID 19 pandemic — mostly through ZOOM meetings. 

During the summer of 2019, the Coastal Bend faced a period of unusually high tides and strong winds, which battered the sea-turtle population around area jetties. Many turtles became stranded on the rocks. All were rescued by several organized efforts and later released. 

“We had a 100 percent survival rate,” Gilbert says. 

Since Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Gilbert says wildlife die-offs and stranding events have become more common along the Texas Gulf Coast. Aquarium officials realized that space for rescued animals would be inadequate if this trend continued. The February freeze dramatically punctuated this point, with thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles.

The aquarium currently has 5,000 square feet of indoor space for treating and housing sick or injured animals, plus another 7,000 square feet of outdoor enclosures. It’s the only Texas facility permitted to care for birds, sea turtles and marine mammals.

While visitors already can view some of the aquarium’s permanent rescue animals, such as sea turtles and raptors, there is no public space for viewing medical and rehab operations.

This will change with the non-profit’s new $15 million facility, including an interactive theater where visitors can watch rescue and rehab efforts in action. The facility also will provide a real-time viewing area of medical procedures behind glass, as well as a view into the wildlife rehabilitation process.

This interpretive center, with no entry fees, was underwritten by the ExxonMobil Foundation.

This space will be dynamic, mainly because of rescue dramas like the one that unfolded in February. 

“I don’t think anyone fully appreciated how the sea turtle population has grown,” Gilbert says. “With the new center, if you were to visit a week after a freeze, you would really get to see a full-scale rescue-medical operation at work.”

Biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service headquarters in Florida helped designed flexible ways to expand capacity for large rescue events, with a 95 percent survival/release rate for as many as 3,000 turtles during an emergency. 

“The February freeze was as big a challenge as (Hurricane) Harvey was for us,” Gilbert says. Natural gas to power the generators now makes the center self-sufficient for seven to 10 days.

“The key is to rescue them quickly so they can recover in clean, filtered water, all run on auxiliary power (which we have now mainly for hurricanes),” Gilbert said. “Soon we’ll have these safeguards in place to offset freeze events.”

Gilbert also considers the new facility an educational institution, capable of recruiting wildlife conservationists and promoting a sustainable conservation ethic for generations to come. 

“I view this center as a one-stop facility that will showcase the wildlife- conservation network throughout South Texas,” he says. “Hopefully, this will further the public’s stake in conservation by helping them understand their part in rescuing, reporting and preventing wildlife harm from natural events or from man-made causes.” 

TSA Annual Average Rescue/Rehab Activity 
Marine mammals: about one    
Sea turtles: 30-50 (spiked to 1,700 in 2020)
Birds: 300-350.
Rescue/Rehab Partners and Their Roles
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: transport injured wildlife to the center, help release birds, take sea turtles offshore 
  • National Park Service: formalized partnership, the Aquarium/Park Partnership for America's Keystone Species, outlines the Rescue Center's ability to rehabilitate birds and sea turtles found within the park
  • National Marine Fisheries: administer both the marine mammal and sea turtle stranding networks
  • Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network: joint operations to recover stranded marine mammals and rehabilitate them
  • Texas SeaLife Center on North Padre Island and Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) in Port Aransas: assist with large-scale events
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: permitting agency, helps with large events
  • City of Corpus Christi: logistical help during turtle cold-stunning events

 If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Two Fantastic Fall Venison Recipes

Read all about writer Brandon Weaver’s first deer hunt in the November issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, then try out these incredible recipes yourself.


Ground Venison Mediterranean Bowl


“Herbs and game go so nice together,” says Chef Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin. He likes bright green herbs like mint, cilantro, parsley and dill.


Inspired by Griffiths’ recommendation, I combined the great flavor of ground venison with tabouli, a classic Mediterranean salad. It’s the perfect pairing. 


I take the traditional tabouli recipe and add a little gluten-free twist. I replace the bulgur wheat, traditionally found in the dish, with riced cauliflower. The version has a really nice crunch and is hearty enough for a cold day. 


Serves two hungry people or four folks saving room for dessert. 


Tabouli Salad


4 cups finely chopped baby kale or baby arugula 


3 cups finely chopped parsley


1 yellow bell pepper, diced


14 sweet grape tomatoes, cut into halves (any small tomato will do)


1 bunch green onions, sliced from white to green 


1 cup chopped fresh mint


4 to 6 cloves pressed garlic


1 lemon


1 - 14 oz. bag of riced cauliflower (I like the H-E-B Caulibits)


2-3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


½ cup crumbled feta


Set oven on warm. Combine veggies (except cauliflower) in an oven-safe bowl or dish. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and squeeze the lemon over the top. Toss the ingredients, mixing thoroughly. Pour a thin layer of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the riced cauliflower and garlic over medium heat until cauliflower is crisp and garlic is slightly browned. Add fresh ground salt and pepper to taste; pour over veggie mixture and toss. Place the bowl in the warm oven. 


Ground Venison


1 pound of ground venison


Processors, both commercial and home, add beef fat to ground venison. When you cook it, there’ll be a lot of excess fat. Sauté venison in a skillet with just enough avocado oil to keep it from sticking. I pour off about ¾ of the excess fat and set it aside. Add fresh ground salt, pepper and cumin to taste. When you add the seasoning, it’ll start to dry out so add back some fat to keep everything moist. 




Use a shallow bowl or a plate with a lip for this dish, so you can mix everything up evenly. Take the warmed tabouli salad out of oven and fill your plate or bowl. It’s all veggies, so don’t be stingy! Add some ground venison and top with feta. I like to spice it up with Yellowbird Habanero sauce or El Yucateco Green Chile Habanero Sauce. Enjoy!



Peppercorn Crusted Venison Backstrap with Kale and Beet Salad


Keep the game-cooking process very simple, so the venison is the star of the show. Coat a six-inch piece of backstrap with avocado oil, coarsely cracked peppercorns and a little salt, and sear it on a hot grill. Per Chef Tre Wilcox’s recommendations, I let the meat rest for the same amount of time as it is cooked. 


The following is my recipe for peppercorn crusted backstrap with pan-fried potatoes and a beet and kale salad. Since the venison is local, I try to source most of my veggies from my local farmer’s market, too. Eat fresh! Eat like a locavore, a person who eats food grown or produced locally. 


Serves two hungry carnivores.


6- to 8-inch piece of backstrap cut lengthwise. I like a 2-inch thick steak so the meat cooks fast without drying out.


8 medium red potatoes, cut into quarters, boiled


8 oz. bag of baby kale. Use half of the bag and save the rest for the Ground Venison Mediterranean Bowl. 


1 large beet, either oven-roasted or boiled. Cut the cooked beet in half and then slice the halves.


1 red bell pepper, diced


1 jalapeño pepper, sliced (optional)


1 bunch green onions, sliced from white to the green 


½ cup crumbled feta cheese


4 to 8 cloves pressed garlic


¼ cup avocado oil


¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil



I set the meat and veggies out as I cook the potatoes, so everything comes to room temperature. 


I’ve had myriad fancy pepper grinders and they all break. The H-E-B Peppercorn Medley Grinder is my go-to seasoning apparatus. You can even unscrew the top and refill it. I generously coat the entire backstrap filets with peppercorn. I’ll salt it after it comes off the grill.  


Preheat the grill on high. You want it hot!


Pan-Fried Red Potatoes


Heat ¼ cup of avocado oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Drain cooked potatoes and smash with a spatula, then add to the skillet. If the oil starts to smoke, turn down the heat. Cook four to six minutes until a golden crust develops. Season with salt, pepper and pressed garlic; add olive oil as needed to keep a light fry going. Flip to brown the other side. Once they’re crisp, add a little more salt and pepper to taste and keep warm in the oven.


Kale Salad


Chop the baby kale, making several crosscuts so the leaves are bite-size. I plate it to the side of the dish and add red bell pepper and green onion. I’m looking for color here, so the beets and jalapenos go on last to complete the rainbow. 




Drop the backstrap on the hot grill and cook 60 to 90 seconds per side (err on the side of less). It’ll cook fast. Pull it off and add just a touch of fresh ground sea salt or my favorite pink Himalayan salt. Let it rest in a warm part of your kitchen so you get a nice medium-rare, warm center. 


Final Presentation


Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a skillet over low heat. Plate the potatoes on the other side of your dish. Warm the sliced beets in the pan, then place them on the greens with some sliced jalapeños. Pour warm olive oil over the salad and finish with feta on top. Slice the backstrap and place down the middle to bridge your greens and potatoes. Enjoy!

 If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


Texas Celebrates National Hunting and Fishing Day With Plan to Help More People Enjoy the Outdoors

  • September 25 is National Hunting and Fishing Day, a day to thank hunters and anglers who fund conservation efforts through their purchases of hunting and fishing licenses and equipment.
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department celebrates this special day by launching our first Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation Plan (R3), whose aim is to connect more people to the outdoors and increase the number of Texans who enjoy hunting and fishing.  
  • The number of Texans who hunt and fish remains static despite our state's population boom, a serious issue because Texas’ wildlife and wild lands depend on funding from hunters and anglers.  
  • TPWD is working to increase the number of resources for people interested in learning to hunt and fish, including beginner classes, videos, blogs, social media and web info on where to fish (and more).  

For generations, Texas sportsmen and women have understood that fish and wildlife populations and habitats must be managed for present and future generations to appreciate and enjoy. As they take to the hunting field or cast their line into a lake or the Gulf of Mexico, they know they are not only enjoying the state’s bounty but are helping to conserve it.  

In honor of this tradition, Saturday, Sept. 25 is designated as National Hunting and Fishing Day (NHF) and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is launching a new initiative aimed at inviting more Texans into the outdoors. Hunters and anglers fund the state’s wildlife management programs through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses and stamps, as well as through taxes paid on hunting and fishing equipment, firearms and ammunition. This generates millions of dollars for conservation programs that benefit both game and non-game species statewide.

“This year, in honor of National Hunting and Fishing Day, I challenge you to share your passion for the outdoors with someone new by providing an opportunity for them to hunt and fish,” says TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith. “Not only will you help make lifelong memories, but you will help pass along one of the greatest gifts we can give future generations, a love of the great outdoors.”

For many years, the number of people who hunt and fish in Texas has remained relatively static, despite huge increases in the state population. Since there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of people participating in the outdoors, it could spell problems for conservation in the future.  Conservation is directly funded by hunting and fishing license sales and existing taxes on firearms, ammunition and fishing equipment.  

The new initiative, named the Texas Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation (R3) Strategic Plan, aims to connect more Texans to nature and outdoor recreation. Increased participation in fishing and hunting brings funding soconservation agencies like TPWD can continue supporting programs such as fish hatcheries (which help bolster the population and quality of different species of fish in Texas) and mentored hunting programs (which introduce new hunters to the sport in a safe environment). 

The benefits go beyond conservation funding. TPWD intends to foster lifelong participants in hunting, fishing, boating and shooting sports, and create a better-informed public with more interest in conserving wild things and wild places in Texas and beyond. 

Those interested in learning about hunting can take an online or in-person hunter education course. Mandatory for all new hunters, the course equips them with the necessary tools and information they need to be safe in the field:  basics about firearm safety, species identification, zones of fire and more. Hunter education certification is required for anyone born on or after Sept. 2, 1971.

TPWD also offers mentored hunting workshops to introduce new hunters to the experience and educate them on needed skills. The Hunting for Beginners webpage also offers a wealth of information.  TPWD is also working with partners across the state to increase hunting opportunities.

Texans who want to learn to fish can also find many resources on the TPWD Fishing for Beginners webpage:  how to get started, safety, basic gear assembly, tackle boxes and supplies, bait and lures, how to cast and more. TPWD’s new outdoor education curriculum is available online and covers everything from basic fishing skills to fly tying. No license is required to fish at a Texas State Park.

NHF Day was launched by Congress in 1971 to recognize hunters and anglers for their leadership in wildlife and conservation. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the first presidential proclamation of NHF Day. The fourth Saturday in September every year is observed as NHF Day to celebrate the rich tradition of hunting, target shooting, and fishing. 

 If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


Life as a TPWD Summer Intern

By Devin Davis, Summer Intern, Marketing

Being an intern for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is something special for everyone who participates. Not only are we steps away from our dream careers, we share memorable and fun experiences along the way. Intern duties range from alligator relocating to preserving historic natural sites. We all dip our feet into a little bit of everything with our particular TPWD group.


Matthew 'Smitty' Smith

Matthew “Smitty” Smith says he loves the time spent getting his hands dirty in the “nitty gritty” at Garner State Park.

“This internship has already provided so much for me in my pursuit of full-time work with TPWD,” Matthew says. His varied jobs include tending the landscape, fixing water leaks and helping clean up downed trees. He has been working on a trail project with the park host to assess trail signage and has visited other parks to learn about how they operate.


Justin Gallender and friend

Justin Gallender’s stint as a Texas Game Warden intern is quite an adventure for someone who is not afraid of alligators. He’s learned about boating operations and equipment handling and how to perform water safety inspections. He has also acquired knowledge on ticket writing, handling wildlife and boating registration. His work as a TPWD intern is constantly changing, which he says keeps it interesting for him. Justin graduated last May from Sam Houston State University, majoring in criminal justice with a minor in animal science.

Frances Franklin

Frances Franklin is a graduate student majoring in natural resource communications. She currently attends Stephen F. Austin State University, working on her master’s degree. She has learned to write website content and edit it on Google during her internship, as well as learning more about practicing safety in desert parks. Frances has been proofreading state park maps and updating Google alerts for state parks. Captioning TPWD educational videos and re-writing portions of park websites are also things she has learned to do. 


As for me, Devin Davis, I’m a student at Huston-Tillotson University, and being an intern for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been one of the best experiences of my college career. I did not want to intern anywhere else, so I thank myself every day for being patient enough to grab the opportunity to do so. 


All the 64 summer 2021 TPWD interns have worked hard to achieve our goals, whether virtually, outdoors or even in the water. As the summer comes to an end, most of us are finishing up our projects and preparing to share our experiences with others so they can have the same great experience at TPWD in the future.


To learn more about internships at TPWD, visit our website


Family Completes Second Season of Great Outdoor Scavenger Hunt

 It's not too late for one last summer blast to explore Texas. 

Cailey Melvin, with friends and family and Snowgy the Bunny, completed GOSH 2021.

What did YOU do on your summer vacation?

Well, if you’re the Melvin family from Harker Heights, your answer would be: “Embarked on an epic family adventure, as usual.” Luckily, when COVID limited their destination options, Texas Parks & Wildlifemagazine stepped in to offer a Texas-sized alternative to faraway destinations — the second year of the Great Outdoor Scavenger Hunt.

It’s not too late for one last adventure! Join the Melvins and complete one region before it all ends at midnight on Labor Day. Click here to get started.

Remember that old song, “I’ve Been Everywhere”? The Melvins have been everywhere!

After all, they had already knocked out the first round of GOSH in 2019 (GOSH was canceled due to COVID in 2020). With a passel of new places to discover and the magazine’s family-friendly regional approach in mind, the family crossed every item — that’s 36, including the “bonus” food round — off the list again in 2021.

We were excited to meet these GOSH enthusiasts in person, so the Melvins piled into their trusty 1988 Land Cruiser and came to visit the Austin office in April. Piling into the car for adventure is second nature to these teachers and their daughters.

Daughter Cailey regaled everyone with stories about her recent trip to the Galapagos Islands and her particular interest in the blue-footed booby. She’s a bright young naturalist who had become a little anxious during the isolation of home study. RaeAnn and John saw the announcement for GOSH’s second season and a light bulb came on. Getting back to family adventure always gets them back in the groove.

Soon, lucky friends found themselves accompanying Cailey and the Melvins on road trips to one of the GOSH regions, sometimes camping at parks, sometimes soaking off the road in a hotel hot tub. This year, there was a new member of the Melvin GOSH team: Snowgy, an adorable white lionhead rabbit. 

Together, they traversed Texas, taking selfies with #GOSH2021 locations everywhere they roamed. The Melvins got salty at El Sal del Ray, said howdy to Big Tex, marveled at the Texas Doofus, hiked trails, combed beaches and climbed towers to see the view. Not to mention, all the iconic Texas food such as pies with mile-high meringue and tacos, El Paso style.

The Melvins are a family full of curiosity, so they turn every stop into a fun learning opportunity. They delight in sharing new details about the places they visit and the people they meet along the way. Everything enriches the journey and sparks new discussions with few distractions. Family bonding at its finest.

Older daughter Cassidy (there are five Melvin kids with "C" names, Cailey is the youngest) was a part of their last GOSH summer adventure. She got the family started on environmental causes that sparked even more fulfilling trips. The Melvins start looking for deeper meaning pretty early in life.

So, we weren’t surprised to learn that RaeAnn has implemented the TPWD Archery in Schools program in her school for a decade. Nor were we surprised to hear of many other Melvin family adventures, like buying a canoe and heading to the coast to save cold-stunned sea turtles (and finding a huge pod of dolphins instead) or taking a “left turn” a few states over when someone expressed a desire to see the Pacific Ocean. 

 The Melvin family gave us a lot of inspiration for GOSH 2022, so look for it next June. 

If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.




Texas State Park Police Celebrate 50 Years of Service

TPWD officers quietly keep parks and visitors safe 

Since 1971, a special group of law enforcement officers has been responsible for the safety, security and protection of the natural jewels in Texas and those who visit them. 

Often confused with Texas Game Wardens, State Park Police quietly and humbly protect the state’s natural and cultural resources through community-oriented policing and emergency response. In 2021, they celebrate a half-century of providing safe and secure environments for 10 million state park visitors annually. 

State Park Police are on patrol every day along the coast, in the forests and mountains, in the desert, in cities and on the border. In basic terms, they protect the unique resources of the parks and ensure that all visitors can enjoy them safely and responsibly. 

In 1971, a dozen carefully selected volunteers started the evolution to what is now the State Park Police. Today, the number has grown to approximately 140 highly trained police officers. 

“Called by different names and shouldering different patches on different uniforms, the police officers of the State Parks Division have been forged by challenge and change,” says State Park Police Major Doug Huggins. “The 50th anniversary is a significant milestone and the perfect time to shine a light on a vital part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the history of the great state of Texas.” 

Never knowing what each day may bring, State Park Police serve with honor, dedication, heroism, and even an often-welcomed sense of humor. 

You’ll find their stories of setbacks, successes and growth in our December issue but we thought we’d share a few of their favorite anecdotes here today. 

Unsung Heroes

Officer Ryan Hunter – Abilene State Park


Despite the relatively dry climate in west central Texas, I have made several water rescues during my career as a Park Police Officer at Abilene State Park. On one of those hard-raining days (while sitting in my office trying to keep a roof leak from collapsing the ceiling) I heard a call for service for a woman stuck in a flooded car. My partner was standing nearby, and I told him to get ready to go. 

The flooded-out car was only a few miles from the park, but there was no good direct route. We’d have to drive at least 10 miles to get there. We were a few miles down the road (hoping to hear that everyone was safe and we were no longer needed) when a deputy reported that he’d flooded out his truck in deep water. A woman and a small baby were trapped on the roof of their car; the water was too swift and too deep for him to reach them. Their car had been washed off the road into the creek; the water was still rising. My blood pressure also started rising. 

When we arrived, we saw a small SUV washed off the road into a creek. The woman and small child were both on the roof and they were clearly upset and afraid. The swift water was within a few inches of reaching the roof of the car. 

I don’t think we talked at all. We just put on our lifejackets, linked up like a two-segment caterpillar and went into the water. It was deep and moving fast enough that we had to fight against the current. 

We got the baby first and took her to safety. Then we went back and got the mother. I remember thinking that she seemed weightless as I pulled her off the roof of the car. Adrenaline is a powerful hormone.

Once mother and child were safely secured inside a warm, dry Sheriff’s Department vehicle, we shook hands with the deputies and left. I never learned the victim’s names. When we got back in the truck, I told my partner that what we had just saved two people’s lives. It was a special moment that we would always remember. 

You can only find the humor in this last part of the story if you have spent your career being misidentified as a Game Warden. As we were driving back to the park, a deputy announced on the radio: “You can cancel any additional response to this incident, the Game Wardens performed a rescue. Everyone is now safe.” 

We laughed at that. It was a light-hearted ending to a serious situation, a fine moment in the careers of a couple of humble State Park Police Officers. 

Snake Wrangler

Major Douglas S. Huggins – Regions 2 and 4


My first duty station was Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle. I enjoyed the canyon’s beauty, extraordinary history and diversity of wildlife. Working with wildlife was part of the job. 

As a child, I was terrified of snakes. With the help of some nature shows and books, I overcame my fear of snakes. I actually began to like them. 

Occasionally, visitors find a snake at their campsite and want it removed.  For me, a snake call is an opportunity to help visitors understand the animal and maybe be less afraid. 

One afternoon, a couple checked in to the Lighthouse Cabin and were getting unpacked and settled in. Stepping outside to enjoy the view, they saw a snake on the rocky patio area of the cabin. Very frightened, they called the park headquarters for help.

The cabin is nestled into the rim of the canyon. There’s a rock stairway leading from the parking area down to a large rock patio bordered by a rock retaining wall. I announced my arrival as I started down the stairway. The couple acknowledged me with a wave, but It was clear that they were not coming outside until the area was snake free. 

I asked them where the snake was and if they got a good look at it. With only their heads peeking out the door, they told me the “rattlesnake” had slithered into a crack on the rock wall. I assured them there was no need to worry. I would find and relocate the snake and all would be well. 

I had some doubt about the species identification. To some people, all snakes are rattlesnakes.

The stage was set. The couple were peeking out of the front door. I was crouched down, looking into the crack of the rock wall at eye level, about a foot away. 

I pulled out my flashlight and shined it into the crack. Nothing. I was determined to capture and relocate the snake or at least convince them the snake was long gone. 

Still crouched, I pulled out my collapsible baton, poked it into the crack and wiggled it around. I was pretty sure the story would end there, but it did not.

The snake leaped out of the crack and landed between my feet! I might have let out a yell while jumping onto the picnic table. The couple and I watched the snake relocate itself down the side of the canyon rim.

Mission accomplished! Obviously, I meant to do that!

Inspired to Serve

Officer Elvis Hernandez - Lake Casa Blanca SP


Growing up, I had spent a lot of my time in the outdoors, and I was interested in going into law enforcement. After graduating college, I started an internship at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and learned more about what it means to protect our historic state lands and public recreation areas. 

I completed my internship and soon found myself taking the oath to become a Texas State Park Police Officer. The opportunity to be a proactive state police officer and steward of our Texas state parks and state natural areas has been extremely rewarding. I am eager to continue our legacy of resource protection, public safety, boating safety and environmental protection throughout Texas’s public lands. 


Small Kindnesses and Heroic Deeds

Officer Jonathan Murphy - Franklin Mountains SP


State Park Police Officers have all types of job duties, such as enforcing all state laws, parks and wildlife codes and responding to search-and-rescues. I had the opportunity to help the people of the Houston and other areas affected by Hurricane Harvey for more than a week. We were tasked with typical missions, such as searching for people stuck in neighborhoods only accessible by boat, protecting property from looters and taking supplies to people who had no way to get the water, food and other things they needed. 

A few other State Park Police Officers and I were sent to a small cemetery outside of Lumberton to help secure caskets that had popped up from their graves and started floating away. I never imagined being tasked for such a mission, but it shows the diversity of what we may be asked to do. 

One story I will never forget has troubled me and changed me. It was a Saturday morning, August 3, 2019. It was like any other Saturday. I was getting ready for work and had just turned on my handheld radio when I heard a “shots fired” call come over the El Paso Police Department’s dispatch. I realized that this was serious when they reported multiple callers and multiple victims. I jumped into my unit and responded to the area of Cielo Vista Mall and the Walmart next door. 

A Texas state trooper and I began clearing the mall until we met another trooper who had heard about shooters and casualties at the Walmart. 

We quickly made our way next door and began to clear the store. A couple of El Paso police officers met us and helped us clear the store. I had never seen so much fear in people, so much blood and death at one time. Many local, state and federal LEOs responded to help. 

I witnessed paramedics with the El Paso Fire Department running through the unsecured building to attempt to save people in critical condition, without a care for their own safety. I am sure that I was not the only one who felt fear that day but I knew what I had to do and I allowed my training to take over. There were many heroes that day. 

Another remarkable memory involves my work on the Combined Search-and-Rescue Team (ComSAR) of the El Paso Fire Department and the El Paso Police Department for the past 7 years. We received a call about a female who was hiking the Ron Coleman Trail when she was hit on the head by a large rock, which had fallen down the mountainside. She then fell an additional 30-40 feet. The ComSAR Team was activated.

 Due to the difficult terrain and steep cliffs (and she was not on an official trail), it took us about 45 minutes to make patient contact. We found the female, severely injured, bleeding from her mouth, nose and ears. One of her eyes was completely swollen shut from the trauma caused by the rock. She was in and out of consciousness and in critical condition. We knew that if we didn’t get her to the hospital soon, she would not make it. Her young daughter, probably no older than 14, watched this incident unfold. 

Due to her condition, we were able to request the assistance of the United States Air and Marine Unit, a part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Air and Marine was able to fly to our location but could not land due to the terrain, so we decided to do a short haul. We connect a long rope to the patient (who is in a stokes basket); the other end is connected to the helicopter. They moved the patient to the trailhead, where an ambulance was waiting. The patient suffered broken bones and internal injuries but recovered. This was all possible through the teamwork of the ComSAR Team and the assistance of the CBP Air and Marine helicopter. 


Flying into Action

Officer Rick Parks - Lake Ray Roberts SP


When I joined TPWD, I never thought I’d use my aviation background in my State Park Police career. I do the typical police type work – drugs, DWIs, disturbances, traffic stops and patrol — but I am also a drone pilot for our force. 

I get to fly search-and-rescue missions, surveys and photo documentation missions in our state parks. I’ve also had other aviation-related experiences in our state parks. When you think of Texas state parks, you usually don’t think of aviation accidents, however, during my combined 13 years with TPWD, I have worked two aviation-type crashes. 

The first was an airplane crash was at Cedar Hill State Park. On the maiden flight of his new mahogany home-built, amphibian aircraft, a pilot was lining up to land on Joe Pool Lake. He lost oil pressure, got distracted and forgot to retract his gear. This caused him to cartwheel across the lake. He was able to exit the aircraft; a passing boater tied the plane to the boat and dragged it to the boat ramp. I met him and the aircraft as it arrived. We called EMS for the pilot and a flatbed to pick up the aircraft.

The second accident occurred at Ray Roberts Lake State Park. One afternoon, an ultralight aircraft crashed in a cove of the lake near the park headquarters. A search ensued and a boater spotted the wreckage and rescued the trapped pilot. The boater put the ultralight aircraft on his dive platform and returned the pilot and craft to the boat ramp. I loaded the ultralight and pilot into my patrol truck and transported them back to their starting point. 

 Another favorite story involves animals, not airplanes.

One late evening at Cedar Hill State Park, two officers were patrolling. While driving through one of the Day Use areas with their windows down, an owl flew into the passenger-side window. In near complete darkness, the owl landed around the gear shift next to the leg of the officer in the passenger’s seat. The passenger officer started yelling and swinging his hands trying to get it out of the vehicle. The driver started swerving and inadvertently keyed up the park radio, enabling park headquarters staff to hear all the commotion. After a few exciting seconds, the owl exited the vehicle without injury, but did leave his mark all over the officer’s pants. Since that evening, those two PPOs have had a genuine respect for birds of prey, especially owls!

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