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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.

In these temples to camouflage fabric, stuffed and mounted deer stand in natural settings by the high-powered rifles designed to fell them. They are museums with the expressed goal of getting you, the consumer, firing buckshot into the glades, casting your line upon the waters, signing on the dotted line for that irresistible boat-and-trailer combo, financing available.

And Wonders of Wildlife, unlike the aquariums and natural history museums most of us are familiar with, similarly stands in service to the concept that culling game has been very good for the American environment. "In a world increasingly disconnected from the great outdoors," says a WoW mission statement, "it's more important than ever for people of all ages to connect with nature through fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation to ensure we can protect wildlife for generations to come."

In other words: Look at all the pretty fish, and wouldn't it be awesome to hook one? The main point is that taxes on hunting and fishing gear and licenses have funded state and federal conservation efforts to the tune of tens of billions of dollars since 1937. You can look it up by, well, looking up at one of the aquarium's walls, where Morris has the stats laid out.

It's a worthy message to deliver, especially to folks whose most vigorous hunting trips come in the aisles at Costco. But the effect in the galleries can be disquieting. The dioramas Morris has commissioned are, by and large, spectacular. The backdrops are hand-painted. The animals strike vivid poses: A grizzly bear chases wolves through an Alaskan tundra scene, and a herd of caribou surges uphill out of a roiling river. Some dioramas are like windows onto a specific moment; others are, again, maximalist, as in the Africa room, where visitors walk in the middle of an enormous set stuffed and mounted with virtually every animal of that continent you can think of -- Africa's greatest hits.

"This room is a mind-blower here," said Gary Pasnik, a retired Chicago schoolteacher and opening-day visitor. "Look at all of this."

But just as you are admiring the homage to the national parks in a series of dioramas showcasing marquee species from some of them, a little plaque will inform you that this particular bear standing in a stream amid salmon at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is, in fact, a 10-foot 6-inch brown bear taken with bow and arrow by John Paul Morris, one of Johnny's sons, at Deadman Bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska, in October 2011.

Elsewhere, there's the "longest alligator gar ever recorded," an 8-foot 33/4-inch specimen taken by John Paul and Johnny on a Texas river in 2007. In a great hall of deer trophies -- think hunting lodge gone wild -- all the mounted heads act as wallpaper and have plaques describing their provenance, including one fine fellow marked with the poignant, "Illinois Road Kill, Hancock County, Ill."

There is no doubting Morris' sincerity about his conservation message, however. He gives Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups showplaces within his halls. He opens the natural history part of the museum -- designed to be viewed first, if you buy the museum-aquarium combo ticket -- with an earnest homage to native Americans as great naturalists. A treatise on the slaughter of the Western bison sets the stage for modern conservation, complete with paeans to that movement's hero, Theodore Roosevelt, so instrumental in establishing the national parks and inspiring the movement to preserve threatened species.

But Roosevelt now has company, Morris' many supporters want you to know. Famous TV angler Jimmy Houston was on hand at Wonders of Wildlife for the opening, hanging out in the section devoted to the International Game Fish Association Fishing Hall of Fame (of which he is, of course, a member).

"Johnny Morris is, in my estimation, the greatest conservationist in the history of America -- in our time, anyway," Houston said. He thought about it and mentioned Roosevelt, but added that TR's work "was all done with government money. Johnny does it on his own."

You could quibble with this reductionist view of environmentalism. But standing amid the myriad wonders of the Wonders of Wildlife, it was difficult to dispute that Johnny Morris does it on his own.

IF YOU GO

Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium: 500 W. Sunshine St., Springfield, Mo. Aquarium Adventure and Wildlife Galleries combo ticket, $39.95 adults, $23.95 children (4-11); 888-222-6060, wondersofwildlife.org.

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