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  • Ken Perrotte

Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium - Putting the 'WOW' Factor into Conservation!

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

It is wholly appropriate that Wonders of Wildlife forms the acronym “WOW” because this creation of noted entrepreneur, philanthropist and conservationist Johnny Morris has a wow factor that dwarfs any comparable museum or attraction available. It is routinely recognized by publications such as USA TODAY as “America’s Number One Best New Attraction” and “America’s Best Aquarium.” Established as a not-for-profit enterprise, revenues from Wonders of Wildlife are returned to myriad conservation programs.

At 350,000 square-feet, Wonders of Wildlife is larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. You can see some 35,000 fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds along the more than 1.5 miles of trails. Guests walk through authentic habitats, each with their own mood. Some 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums use innovative designs and over-the-top creativity to transport guests to the depths of the ocean or the murky bottom of a river system.

Laura Head Elliott, with Bass Pro Shops marketing, says, “We see people coming through our doors at Wonders of Wildlife every day, realizing that they aren’t, necessarily, conservationists, hunters, or anglers. Our goal is to bring them in more or less as tourists and have them leave as conservationists, with a deeper appreciation for wildlife and the great outdoors.”

Replica of Johnny Morris' first retail space in his dad's store

Morris is a Springfield, Missouri, native. His first retail bass fishing enterprise was a small pegboard space in his father’s liquor store, a replica of which is part of the Wonders of Wildlife exhibits. Bass Pro Shops celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. Morris calls the Springfield Bass Pro Shops store the “granddaddy” store. The Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium is attached to the store.

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Wonders of Wildlife annually. Many, like our group that visited as part of an Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers conference staged in nearby Branson, underestimate the incredible extent of what awaits them once they enter, riding an escalator through a herd of stampeding buffalo, complete with authentic sounds and, yes, smells. Interspersed with incredible dioramas featuring some of the most realistic, lifelike taxidermy and scene painting to be found anywhere are special collections, such as one dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt’s cabin. The fireplace is lit, and the room has that unique smell of a wood fire warming things. There are many such sensory experiences.

In an article published earlier this year for USA Today Hunt & Fish magazine, Elliott Stark, Bass Pro Shops director of conservation and brand communications, explained Wonders of Wildlife is a lot like a museum, an exceptionally curated experience. “Those of us who are experienced in hunting and fishing and spend time in the woods will enjoy it because it’s true to life,” he said. “People who haven’t been able to experience those things, though, are provided with depictions of what that experience looks like in a way that’s accessible whether they are accompanied by three-year-old children or 90-year-old grandmothers.”

Morris had a personal hand in every facet of the project, approving the flow of the exhibits and ensuring appropriate homage is paid upfront to the Native Americans and prehistoric people who preceded European arrival in North America. Morris shares quotes relating to conservation from famed Native Americans, such as Chief Seattle, to articulate the need for reverence for the land and its creatures. The amount of beautiful cast bronze sculpture and paintings in the museum is staggering. Each room is akin to a section of something like an important art gallery, where visitors can stop and ponder, reflecting on the meaning inherent in the works before them.

Other exhibits walk you through the Lewis and Clark expedition, the establishment of our national parks, and the reckoning and countermeasures that came as humans wantonly overharvested wildlife. Conservation success stories and people such as Roosevelt and James Audubon - men Morris calls, “far-sighted, visionary conservationists” - are celebrated.

Important to note is that the main store also has a couple of free admission galleries, including an incredible NRA Firearms Collection, the Archery Hall of Fame and more. Geronimo's bow is in the archery gallery, along with displays related to Fred Bear and other bowhunting luminaries.

The major exhibits are designed to both awe and inspire, with a premium placed on utmost accuracy. Head Elliott said every nature exhibit or diorama was created with exacting care and detail, down to the habitat features, the scale, and the way the wildlife species interact with each other. One of my favorite dioramas depicts a herd of musk ox protecting their young on the tundra. It features a painted mural of the landscape at low light, mountains faint in the distance while the northern lights dance above the animals. Head Elliott said muralists painting the backdrop worked under the lighting conditions used in that scene. “They wanted to ensure they painted the scene as it would actually appear in such lighting and get as close a representation as it could possibly be for that environment.”

The exhibits seem endless. The always popular penguins seem to love being the center of attention. Visitors can cross rope bridges in a swamp, wander through a subterranean cave or gaze into a shipwreck and marvel at the marine life. Particularly fun is listening to the excited, happy laughs and exclamations of kids as they wander the exhibits.

But wait, there’s more!

Wonders of Wildlife is becoming the central repository for numerous other museums and halls of fame. The International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame has thousands of artifacts and exhibits recognizing extraordinary achievements in recreational fishing. That association relocated this collection from its global headquarters in Dania Beach, Florida.

Established in 1999, the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame celebrated the incredible story of bass fishing, including that of “Bass Boss” Ray Scott, who founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and developed the modern, high-payout tournaments still seen today. This attraction relocated to Wonders of Wildlife from Birmingham, Alabama. The American Museum of Fly Fishing opened a new gallery at Wonders of Wildlife Museum in February 2022.

Many American presidents enjoyed fishing. Photos and collections from several presidents, from FDR and Truman to Jimmy Carter and George Bush are present. Celebrities aren’t left out either. One display shows you the various lures that cowboy star Roy Rogers kept in his tackle box.

Further solidifying this incredible attraction’s claim as being the foremost conservation collection anywhere is the recent report that the National Wild Turkey Federation is discussing moving the extensive collection of turkey hunting memorabilia and displays in its museum to Wonders of Wildlife. The NWTF announced the impending closure of its headquarters in Edgefield, South Carolina, part of a reduction in the amount of space it needs to meet its mission.

Morris calls Wonders of Wildlife a “salute to the role that American sportsmen and women have played in conservation, throughout North America and reaching beyond our borders into other nations around the globe. That was the real motivation,” he says, “celebrate hunting and fishing.”

Wonders of Wildlife is open daily all year, except for Christmas day. Plan on spending at least 3-4 hours for the experience. If you plan to see most of the exhibits and dig into the thousands of items of memorabilia and artifacts, spend a full day. Tickets, as well as more details on the many wildlife exhibits and themed aquarium settings are available online.

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