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Rural Missouri Magazine

Wonders — Wild & Alive
Springfield's new Wonders of Wildlife museum
celebrates hunting and fishing

by Bob McEowen

John Hines steadies a mounted grizzly bear while Illinois taxidermist and museum artist Gary Brees secures the display. Brees' studio created the dioramas at Wonders of Wildlife, a new museum of hunting and fishing located next door to Bass Pro Shops in Springfield.

For nearly 4 million people each year the most inviting corner in Springfield is the intersection of Sunshine and Campbell streets, site of the sprawling Bass Pro Shops complex. Beginning Nov. 2, that address belongs to Wonders of Wildlife, a new museum built on the edge of the store's massive parking lot.

Touted as the American National Fish and Wildlife Museum, Wonders of Wildlife combines traditional museum displays with live animal exhibits and gigantic aquariums in

92,000-square-foot facility that towers over the busy street corner.

The museum will naturally appeal to Bass Pro's clientele but proximity to Missouri's top tourist attraction comes at a price.

"The number one misconception people have is that we're owned by Bass Pro. Second to that is that we're just going to wheel all the taxidermy across the parking lot and put it in the new building," says Vicki Hicks, Wonders of Wildlife's public relations coordinator.

Although Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris was the visionary behind Wonders of Wildlife and donated the property for it, neither perception is true.

The museum is owned by a not-for-profit foundation and is funded by Springfield's hotel and motel sales tax, municipal bonds, grants, private donations and admissions fees. And while Bass Pro Shops' own wildlife museum may close when Wonders of Wildlife opens, the store's displays are not moving across the lot.

Instead, visitors to the new museum will see a national-class facility that is part zoo, part aquarium and part learning center — all devoted to championing the role of hunting and fishing in the conservation of wildlife and natural resources.

"Wonders of Wildlife is just an amazing thing. People will see a whole gamut of animals, everything from native species all the way to Caribbean salt water fish in the 'Out to Sea' tank," says Misty Mitchell who left Springfield's Dickerson Park Zoo to become the museum's curator of mammals and birds. "There's nothing like this around anywhere."

When it opens, Wonders of Wildlife will employ more than 100 people and require the help of some 400 volunteers who will serve as tour guides, greeters, ticket sellers and office help. The museum can accommodate up to 1,500 people and self-guided tours are expected to take about an hour and a half.

Local tradesmen Daryle Hayter and Kelly Hall attach a display below a mounted eagle. The display allows visitors to compare their hand strength to the grip of an eagle's talon.

Visitors entering the two-story lobby can learn about conservation at a series of interactive electronic displays. An $11 admission allows them to proceed to a tree-top free-flight aviary, home to live birds and more hands-on exhibits. From there, guests will pass frolicking river otters and wary bobcats. Beaver and ducks swim on the surface of a 140,000-gallon fresh-water aquarium intended to recreate habitat found at Table Rock Lake.

"We have about 40 different mammals and bird species and about 120 different species of fish and reptiles on display," says Hicks, who says she tries to emphasize the "Alive!" message. "We're 80 percent live animals and only 20 percent museum exhibits."

The museum's traditional wildlife taxidermy and educational displays carry much of the message of Wonders of Wildlife, however.

A "Hooves, Horn, Hide and Hair" gallery introduces visitors to wildlife itself while "Why I Hunt" presents the case for hunting as part of America's conservation effort. The "Top of the Food Chain" predator gallery includes dioramas depicting North America's largest game while the "Heroes of Conservation" library includes interactive displays recalling the lives of famous outdoorsmen and women.

As visitors ride an escalator downstairs they pass bubble-shaped windows where bass, gar and other freshwater fish peek out, providing the first glimpse of what's to come. Below, a 19-foot-tall, 10-inch-thick wall of curved acrylic provides an underwater view of the freshwater aquarium. Smaller aquariums house other aquatic species while museum-goers will learn about fish biology walking through the inside of a 30-foot-long bass replica.

Other displays include an antique tackle shop, an interactive, electronic deep-sea fishing experience and a unique "Read a River" display aimed at children. "You can float a little sponge fish down the current and see where fish eat and where they hide and the habitat of fish," says Hicks.

More than 100 bats live in the museum's walk through cave — don't worry, they're behind glass — and a future exhibit containing alligators and poisonous snakes is planned. The exhibit that has earned the most attention, though, is "Out to Sea," a huge salt water aquarium which houses several species of sharks as well as rays, eels and other ocean fish.

Wonders of Wildlife Public Relations and Development Coordinator Vickie Hicks watches a diver swim among the fish in the museum's "Out to Sea" saltwater aquarium. The 220,000 gallon tank will house sharks, rays and other fish.

"It's 225,000 gallons. That's two swimming pools full. It's 21 feet deep," Hicks says. "It's breathtaking as you walk into the room."

Together, these and other displays make up a museum unlike anything else in the Midwest.

"We are the American National Fish and Wildlife Museum," says Fred Marty, a former U.S. Army two-star general who heads Wonders of Wildlife. "I don't think people know yet what's going on inside this building. It is just absolutely super and this community and all of southwest Missouri is going to be the the beneficiaries."

One only needs to look at those involved in Wonders of Wildlife to recognize its national stature. Every major conservation group in America — from Audubon Inter-national and The Nature Conservancy to Ducks Unlimited and Buckmasters, some 27 groups in total — are participating. Former U.S. Presidents Bush and Carter are honorary board chairmen.

Clearly, the participation of a virtual who's-who in American conservation is due to one man, Bass Pro Shop's Johnny Morris. "He is the driving force for getting it started," says Larry Whiteley, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops. "He knew all these people and he knew how to get them together."

It was Morris' idea to launch the museum and his contributions, worth as much as $10 million including land, made it possible.

"This is a lifelong dream he's had," Whiteley says. "Johnny has had a heart for conservation and education many, many years. He wants to see more people appreciate and love the outdoors and take care of it."

The new Wonders of Wildlife museum houses live mammals, fish and birds as well as traditional museum displays. The 92,000-square-foot facility is located next to Bass Pro Shops in Springfield.

Morris' contributions are not finished. Plans are underway for an aerial walkway between Bass Pro Shops and Wonders of Wildlife. The enclosed bridge will include another free-flight aviary and connect to an additional 30,000 square feet of display space inside the store building.

This flow of support is strictly one-way however. The museum's public bond financing does not allow Wonders of Wildlife to assist its neighbor in any way. "We have to be very careful of that relationship so that we don't exist to promote them or that will jeopardize the bonds," Hicks says of the business know simply as "the store" to museum employees.

Not that Bass Pro needs any help from the museum. With twice the annual visitors of the Gateway Arch, the huge outdoors store is by far the state's number one tourist destination. But that doesn't mean the museum wouldn't like to see the tables turned.

"Obviously it's going to be more the other way around in the beginning," Hicks says. "But our goal is to make ourselves a national attraction."

Wonders of Wildlife opens Nov. 2. For more information call (417) 890-9453 or visit at www.wondersofwildlife.org.

 

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