Springfield, Missouri -- This story begins in a liquor store. That's where, in 1971, Johnny Morris first launched his Bass Pro Shops fishing and hunting empire, selling lures, bait and tackle amid the bottles of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's in one of his father's Brown Derby booze shops. It's also where the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium begins, a monument to American conservation that opened up six months ago in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, calling itself "the world's largest wildlife museum."
For those unfamiliar, Johnny Morris is one of the United States' most renowned outdoorsmen. Today, he owns and operates 95 big-box Bass Pro Shops across the country, which sell the widest array of hunting, fishing, camping and outdoors-related merchandise you can get outside the internet. To many Americans, the stores are the down-home embodiment of all of their hopes, dreams and recreational hobbies. Bass Pro is where you can still buy any gun over the counter; ogle state-of-the art, hundred-thousand-dollar fishing boats as inspiration for your American dream; and take your kids to pet and pose with literal mountains of taxidermy while telling them stories of the biggest buck, bear or big-game trophy you ever killed. More than 120 million people pass through Bass Pro shops every year, and according to Forbes, Morris and his empire are worth an estimated $4.4 billion today.
But selling rods and ammunition was never Morris' ultimate vision. In fact, for the past 40 years, the entrepreneur has also been at the helm of advocacy and fundraising efforts by sportsmen and women around the world to show how hunting is actually the pinnacle of global environmentalism and conservation efforts. This fall, he opened a literal monument to that vision: Wonders of Wildlife (WOW), a 350,000-square-foot natural history museum, aquarium and immersive 4D wildlife attraction celebrating "people who love to hunt, fish, and act as stewards of the land and water." The museum contains 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles and birds as well as thousands of stuffed animal trophies portrayed in painstakingly crafted replications of their natural environments. The museum cost an estimated $290 million to build and is pushing hard with PR tactics and community-outreach initiatives to become one of the nation's top attractions. This May, USA Today named Wonders of Wildlife America's Best Aquarium. So far, the attraction has been met with largely positive reviews from the likes of The Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Thrillist and others.
A team from Silica magazine recently headed down to Missouri to investigate the new environmental monument and check out Morris' unique vision of conservation. Through interviews with museum staff and local hunters, we wanted to see firsthand how he and his conservative counterparts are planning to save the earth's animals through guns, fish and tons of taxidermy. The monumental zooquarium, though seemingly innocuous, tells a complex story about the legacy and future of American wildlife protection.
"We hope you leave here with no doubt in your mind that sportsmen and women have been true champions for conservation," says Johnny Morris in the short film that officially opens our journey into the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. Set against the backdrop of a pristine lake, he reels in his fishing line and turns toward the camera. "There can be no doubt when you study the history, from the days of Roosevelt and Audubon on, sportsmen and women, hunters, and anglers have really been instrumental in providing the funding and the leadership that has brought back many of the species that we're so fortunate to enjoy." The film ends. A turkey gobbles in surround sound as it flies across the ceiling of the immersive cinema experience, and the movie screen silently retracts into the wall, creating a massive gateway leading into the wildlife galleries. By this point, we've already made our way through the free, historically reconstructed edition of Morris' old Brown Derby liquor store, frozen in time, an exhibit all museumgoers must pass through before buying their tickets. The entire WoW experience costs $39.95 for adults and $23.95 for children, a price that is lamented by several camo-clad Bass Pro shoppers as we enter the massive complex.
We meet our tour guides, Bob Ziehmer, senior director of conservation, and Shelby Stephenson, public relations and social media manager, at the museum outside the theater, behind a colossal 26-foot-tall "dream buck." We are expected to take the full press tour before being allowed to explore the museum by ourselves, after which we are to receive complimentary passes.
Wildlife Gallery: Upper Level
"Our mission is to celebrate people who hunt and fish and act as stewards of the land and water, because in today's society, there's a large percentage of people that don't have a clear understanding of the benefits of hunting and fishing, or what responsible hunting or fishing actually looks like," Stephenson tells us over her shoulder as we enter the wildlife-galleries portion of the museum. She graduated from high school in 2012 and has been working as the public face of Morris' environmental empire for the past three years.
"We're only going to be more and more strong as we educate the entire population of individuals and allow them to understand how they can plug in to this vision," Ziehmer later adds. Our second guide is the former director of the Missouri Department of Conservation and left his government post in 2017 to oversee Morris' foundation, implement his vision and search out key opportunities for advocacy to ensure that the sustainable-hunting practices Morris champions are upheld across the country.