The Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri may be the best way to spend a cold, rainy day that I have ever had the good fortune to discover. It costs more than a little to get in, but a day pass gets you into both the aquarium and the museum.
A scant hundred feet from the ticket booth and in front of the doors leading into the aquarium proper stands a massive tank, apparently so placed in order to persuade reluctant visitors to spend the $40 per ticket to see more of the kinds of things it has inside.
It certainly had my attention. This may be the only aquarium I have ever visited where some of the fish on display dwarfed the sharks. I didn’t know bony fish came in such sizes. And yet even this sight was to be topped multiple times that day – indeed, just a few seconds later. As I stared at the fish, a sea turtle swam within inches of the glass, headed for a tasty bit of anemone. It looked to be a female, and she was beautiful.
I was reluctant to leave this sight behind, but it was time to scan my ticket. As I wound my way through the aquarium with my family, I was bowled over by the sheer number of species on display, and by the spacious, naturalistic enclosures. Aquariums and zoo displays are only fun for the animal-lover if they are set up the right way; otherwise, they are just sad. There was no cause for sorrow in Wonders of Wildlife. The animals were healthy and active, clearly accustomed to human visitors.
At some point we got hungry and purchased a bag of popcorn from a concession stand. This made us very popular with the marmosets, funny little monkeys with funny little faces that expressed clear interest in the popcorn we were munching. Even the barn owl, a very staid and stately bird, glanced first at us with obvious boredom, and then at the popcorn with equally obvious interest.
Another highlight was the black bear. A sign by the bear’s enclosure said that she had been rescued as a cub in northwest Arkansas after her mother was killed by poachers. Without her mother, she had had no chance at survival in the wild. Now full grown, she was enjoying the cool rain while soaking in her pool and playing with her ball.
There was a tank filled with lionfish, a tank filled with Amazonian discus fish, and several tanks of jellyfish, beautifully illuminated – the kind you can sit and stare at all day and come away with a sense of calm. In one room, visitors were allowed to touch the de-barbed stingrays as they sailed past. An attendant instructed visitors to touch only the stingrays’ smooth backs; on their undersides are their mouths, with powerful jaws made for crushing mollusks and crustaceans.
The last highlight of the day came when we thought the day was over. As we sat munching roasted almonds and resting our feet in the restaurant, someone beside us exclaimed, “Penguin!” I had noticed the tall, cylindrical aquarium in the middle of the room before, but it had seemed empty. Now it became clear that it was connected to the floor above, where the penguins lived. One of these aquatic birds dove down through the cylinder to take a look at the people seated at the tables all around, much to the restaurant-goers’ delight.