The new Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Mo., doesn’t have just one multistory 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, last 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 stars, actor Kevin Costner and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. The local paper 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.
And if there’s a 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, roughly two-thirds the size of the Shedd.
Morris visited the Shedd and American Museum 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.
Halls of abundance
Morris’ environmentalist credo ends the visit: “Remember, we all live downstream.” But he might as well have written, as another kind of motto, “But, wait, there’s more!”
The abundance in these halls — 1½ miles of paths through scores of 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 next to high-powered rifles. 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.
Wonders of Wildlife 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 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 conservation efforts to the tune of tens of billions of dollars since 1937. Morris has the stats laid out on one of the aquarium’s walls.
Hunting lodge gone wild
It’s a worthy message, 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.
But just as you are admiring the homage to the national parks in a series of dioramas showcasing marquee species, 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, 3¾-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 marked with the poignant, “Illinois Road Kill, Hancock County, Ill.”
There is no doubting Morris’ sincerity about his conservation message. He gives Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups showplaces within his halls. He opens the natural history part of the museum 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.
“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 view. But standing amid the Wonders of Wildlife, it was difficult to dispute that Johnny Morris does it on his own.