Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium is considered one of the nation’s preeminent entertainment and educational destinations.
By Shika Hershel
Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, began his career by selling fishing tackle out the back of his father’s store. His reputation has evolved into that of a visionary, which has made him a prominent influence for retailers over the last 50 years.
Today, he is known as a renowned travel destination pioneer and the “Walt Disney of the Outdoors.” His ideals and values were shaped by his parents, both of whom were born in the heart of the Ozarks in Willard, Missouri. His mother, Genny, was one of 10 children, all growing up in a two bedroom house. His father and mentor, John A. Morris, a distinguished World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, served his country with pride and integrity. Johnny’s parents both loved to hunt and fish and soon shared their passion with their son. It was then that Johnny identified how fishing and hunting cultivated a special admiration and appreciation for nature and wildlife.
At the shy age of 21, Johnny fell for the evolving sport of bass fishing and spent five years on the professional cocircuit. After identifying the ever growing interest in the sport, Johnny started Bass Pro Shops with just eight-square-feet in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield, Missouri. Today, Bass Pro Shops has more than 100 retail stores and marine centers across the Nation that has revolutionized shopping for sportsmen and women. All the while, Johnny Morris and Bass Pro has made a significant impact on communities and on the conservation movement with a mission to inspire people to enjoy and respect the great outdoors.
His personal passion for conservation has positioned his newest attraction, the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, with an opportunity to have a positive impact on all who visit.
On September 21, 2017, known as National Hunting and Fishing Day, the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum celebrated its grand opening in Morris’ hometown of Springfield. Nearly 10 years in the making, Wonders of Wildlife is the inspirational tribute to adventurers, explorers, outdoorsmen and women and conservationists who helped discover, develop and preserve the nation.
With over 35,000 live fish, amphibians, mammals, and birds the 350,000-square-foot complex contains the most authentic habitats, and it’s larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It contains more than 1.5 miles of trails and features 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater with immersive wildlife galleries.
Wildlife galleries like the “Shipwreck Room” and “Sheep Mountain” give guests the sensation of traveling through the sights, sounds and climates of the most exotic places on earth, including the African Savannah, the Himalayas, the Amazon rainforest and a journey across the Arctic – of which Morris himself once visited. An extreme “open ocean” aquarium awaits guests – as does an eye-to-eye encounter with a piranha.
The Wonders of Wildlife serves as a national model for conservation education through hands-on learning activities that engages knowledge-seekers of all ages designed to build a connection with young people as the future generation of conservation leaders.
Deep Blue Sea
The Wonders of Wildlife aquarium experience begins with Great Oceans Hall, which brings the excitement of the ocean to the middle of America—home to massive marine habitats teeming with unique species. Guest of all ages can discover what it’s like to feel a stingray, traverse in an underwater tunnel surrounded by giant river beasts, come face-to-face with zebra sharks, jellyfish, leopard whiprays and sea turtles.
This 300,000 gallon “open ocean” habitat features the breathtaking depths of the great blue sea. Guests can also discover the Great Barrier Reef — a luring saltwater aquarium showcasing tropical reef fish, potato cod and anemone fish. Additional exhibits include the Shipwreck Reef, a tank where guest can pet stingrays or starfish and explore a sunken shipwreck. The tank pays tribute to a 237 foot cargo ship that Morris sank off the coast of Florida as a marine habitat.
The aquarium exhibit also gives nods to legendary conservationists with boats from Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray, personal relics and mementos from Lewis and Clark and former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy — both of whom attended the grand opening. The unique design makes for more fun as visitors can journey through cypress swamps, tropical rainforest, Ozarks waterways, rugged caves and more.
“The museum and aquarium pay homage to the sportsman and women of yesterday, today and tomorrow with the knowledge that the surest way to preserve our rich outdoor heritage is to expose more people to its awe-inspiring beauty,” says Johnny Morris.
Around the World and Back Again
Visitors can observe the innovative 4D dioramas of nature’s most exotic and striking animal habitats, witnessing the sights and sounds of extreme wildlife such as leopards hovering beyond high ground observing their prey, wildebeest battling with crocodiles at a watering hole with the largest collection of record-setting big game animals like deer, elk, bear, bison, moose and muskox.
Signature exhibits within the wildlife galleries include The Great African Hall, which has several different types of animals either painted or taxidermied. However, the first thing visitors would notice is the earthy rich, dry, damp vibrant penetrating smells of the wild.
“The Wonders of Wildlife is different from any other museum in the country, especially the Great African Hall,” says museum spokesperson Shelby Stephenson. Local artists and craftsmen the Wolken brothers hand-painted murals for the museum and spent nearly 5,000 hours painting African Hall. With each stroke of the brush, Aaron and Adam Wolken spent six years painting the murals at the museums while committing to six to seven days a week.
The Sheep Mountain diorama exhibit incorporates a breathtaking mural and climatic conditions echoing sounds from the Alps and the scents from wildlife to enhance the experience for visitors. With more than 40 record-setting sheep atop the rugged cliffsides of Sheep Mountain, this habitat honors the personal collection of avid hunter and adventurer Arthur Dubbs.
Johnny Morris wanted to inspire generations of future conservationists while providing visitors the opportunity to relive conservation history with The Boone and Crockett Club and National Collection of Heads and Horns. Founded by our nation’s leading conservation hero Theodore Roosevelt, the Club’s legendary exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to view American game animals – which sparked the most popular conservation movement when it debuted in New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1908. Guests will see bison, bears, elk and a remarkably iconic display of the Chadwick Ram featuring 51-inch horns. The King of Bucks is an exhibit that displays a collection of record whitetails with more than 200 specimens. It showcases the whitetail stages of life, detailing to visitors how a buck changes and matures with the seasons.
More than nine years in the making, Wonders of Wildlife is a collection of both immersive exhibitions and honorary platforms. The result of this facility is a collaboration of over 40 leading wildlife conservation agencies and more than 2,000 woodworkers, ironworkers, painters, sculptors, taxidermist, illustrators, designers, engineers and marine biologists. The murals are the most intricate nature-based artworks ever created.
After the completion of the mural paintings, graphic specialists would consult with landscape artists to stage the 3-D elements including water features, rockwork and native foliage to match the habitat’s seasons.
Johnny Morris created the Wonders of Wildlife museum to share the wonders of nature through an inspirational journey around the world. It’s a celebration of people who hunt, fish and act as stewards of land and water.
“In a world increasingly disconnected from the great outdoors, it is 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” Morris says.
As visitors exit the museum, they read this quote by conservationist Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” wondersofwildlife.org