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New wonders of wildlife aquarium and museum turns conservation knob to 11

Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The new Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium doesn't have just one multi-story mega-tank parading exotic fish species. There are at least three, and that's not counting the Bait Ball, a basement-to-second-floor, see-through aquatic sheath in which thousands of little herring swim around in what I can only imagine is abject terror while a handful of sharks circle them and sometimes glide through them.

Not only is there a tidal-pool tank for petting horseshoe crabs and cute, kiddie-sized sharks, but there's also a full-on stroke-a-stingray experience stocked with five species of the undulating flat fish. Soon enough, the aquarium hopes to offer visitors a dive-with-the-sharks option, this one involving the non-pettable kind.

And when it came time, in late September, to open this new animal destination built around Bass Pro Shops' flagship store in southwestern Missouri, Johnny Morris didn't just cut a ribbon and start taking tickets. The Bass Pro impresario threw a gala party and brought in fishing and hunting pals, including country music superstars, actor Kevin Costner and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. The local paper the next day spoke of a "private 'jet jam'" at the airport.

In other words, the Wonders of Wildlife aesthetic, as one employee put it, is "maximalist." If there's an empty space, Morris is going to squeeze in a live snake tank, a few massive orca models suspended from the ceiling, or a taxidermied puma nestled in faux rocks on an otherwise ordinary staircase.

And if there's a small city on the Ozarks plateau that could use a new family tourism draw, then Morris is going to give it one that combines aspects of New York's American Museum of Natural History and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium in 350,000 square feet of space, roughly two-thirds the size of the Shedd.

Morris visited the Shedd and AMNH frequently in his planning, a spokesman said, but the result is hardly your conventional aquarium. The aquarium portion of Wonders of Wildlife doesn't limit itself, for instance, to water-dwelling live animals. Owls inhabit a barn setting, and brown bears live where the pathway, briefly, ventures out of doors. In the cave environment, that fluttering you hear isn't only the beating of your heart; it's the live bats flapping beside you, behind wire mesh.

Morris' environmentalist credo ends the visit: "Remember, we all live downstream." But he might as well have had his corps of artisans write, as another kind of motto for this surprising new place, "But, wait, there's more!"

"I don't know if I'd get in a car from Chicago just to see this, but I'd sure put it on my trip," said opening-day visitor Larry Smith, a retiree from Springfield and unabashed Johnny Morris fan.

The abundance in these halls -- 1.5 miles of pathway through scores of newly made natural-history dioramas and watery habitats -- won't shock anybody who has visited Bass Pro Shops, the retail empire Morris built from humble beginnings selling bait in his dad's Springfield liquor store.

Bass Pro stores are like little outdoors museums in their own right, artfully crafted to draw you in -- literally -- hook, line and sinker. Even before the aquarium, the Springfield store was Missouri's No. 1 tourist attraction, more popular than the St. Louis arch or anything in nearby Branson.

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