Dr. Taylor ('16) and Andrew ('13) Willis aren't your run-of-the-mill, globe-trotting couple.
When they hit the road, they add a wild twist to their adventures, making a point to visit local zoos. Their fridge at home is plastered with nearly 200 zoo magnets - from Cuba to Mexico, from Costa Rica to South Africa and beyond.
"Whenever we travel, we try to squeeze in some wildlife action," Andrew says.
The proud UNT alumni say they owe a big part of their love story to a study abroad trip to Mexico.
"Experiencing a different culture and being pushed out of my comfort zone in Mexico shaped who I am today. I'm a travel enthusiast, and I even met my future husband on that trip," she recalls. "I owe it all to UNT."
That trip not only ignited Taylor's wanderlust and their marriage, but it also inspired the creation of Worldwide Wildlife, the organization they formed that helps aspiring wildlife care professionals and young children learn more about the animal kingdom at area zoos.
Taylor's love of adventure steered her toward becoming a travel veterinarian. Growing up with parents who worked in the medical field, Taylor initially had her sights set on becoming a pediatrician. But during an inspiring spring break spent volunteering at an animal shelter during her junior year at UNT, she had a change of heart.
"Pediatrics attracted me because of the challenge -- treating someone who can't communicate their issues," Taylor says. "Then I realized that being a vet is similar. I talk to pet owners and zookeepers because the animals can't tell me what's wrong and I love that challenge."
After graduating from vet school in Illinois, Taylor came back home and worked in zoo medicine at a practice in Denton. Soon she was introduced to the world of traveling vets. She didn't think twice before she changed careers and began traveling all over the North Texas area. In 2022, Taylor took her skills abroad and started teaching undergraduate students in South Africa.
"We traveled all over South Africa, where the students get exposure to wildlife rescue medicine. That's where my love for teaching evolved and how the thought process of Worldwide Wildlife came about," she says.
When Taylor was completing internships after graduating from vet school from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she would come home to Andrew and talk about everything she did that day. That's when they started noticing the gaps in these internship programs.
"Many of her experiences felt more like volunteering, lacking the depth students needed," Andrew says. "We started looking very critically at the programs that were out there and formulated the base for what one designed by a veterinarian would be like."
They put their plan into action and began connecting with zoos in North Texas. While Taylor worked on curating a rewarding experience for veterinary students, Andrew, a cybersecurity consultant, took care of the business side of things.
And so, Worldwide Wildlife was born, an educational company offering hands-on adventures in veterinary medicine, zoo husbandry and ecological education with local zoos. Students spend an entire day with Taylor and the zoo's staff, diving into the world of animal care. Currently, Worldwide Wildlife operates in partnership with Gainesville Zoo.
Their most recent project, the Teddy Bear Hospital, is designed for children. Held at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, kids play the part of a doctor with their stuffed animals as patients, learning how to conduct physical exams as well as suturing, bandaging and even performing "surgery" on their plush pals.
Taylor and Andrew are also gearing up to partner with universities, and there's a collaboration in progress with UNT's Department of Biological Sciences.
"The big picture involves partnerships with universities for study abroad programs that offer college credit," Andrew says.
But the Willis' ambitions don't stop there: The name Worldwide Wildlife says it all. The couple is aiming for international expansion by forming partnerships with zoos across the globe, giving American audiences a chance to learn from their resources and exotic animals.
"Our ultimate goal has always been an international study program, tapping into the awesome zoos we've seen," Andrew explains.