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Wildlife World, what are we going to do with you?

April 9, 2010

As I tootled through town these past months, I kept seeing directional signs for a natural history museum. After awhile, I figured out the signs were pointing to Wildlife World. I’d driven past it before, and based on its signage and name, I kinda figured it was tourist-trappy. But then I heard that schoolkids go there on field trips, and a friend told me how cool it was, so I decided to check it out.

Wildlife World is located just south of the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Gering. It’s housed in Gering’s turn-of-the-twentieth depot—a building that looks strangely European to me, with its exposed-timber-and-stucco elements. The museum got its start with a local trophy hunter’s private collection. The story I heard was that the gentleman got repeated requests from school groups to look at his collection of 100 or so animal mounts, so at his own expense, he renovated the Gering depot and created a publicly-available venue for the collection. His not-for-profit museum soon began gathering donated specimens from all over the place, and the museum now boasts more than 600 specimens.

I have to admit up front some queasiness with the concept of killing animals solely to add to one’s collection. There’s a lot of hunting I have no problem with: when the hunting is done sustainably, when it benefits the local economy, when the meat is used for food, and when it helps restore balance to an ecosystem bereft of natural predators. But there are some endangered species on display here. The black rhino and cheetah come to mind. I know nothing about the provenance of these specimens. Maybe they are deceased zoo animals? So, to enjoy the museum, I had to squash some personal feelings down into the depths of my gut. Once I did, I really enjoyed the wild ride that is Wildlife World. Let me take you along . . .

Wildlife World is educational in some respects. There’s a how-to display on taxidermy.

There’s a discussion of hair. (Uh oh. There goes the mental soundtrack again.)

There are many beautifully done predator-prey mounts. Here are two of my favorites:

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I can’t imagine how hard it would be for kids in a school group to resist petting the animals. Guests are asked not to touch the mounts, as human hands can damage them. Luckily, they have a “petting room”. I wonder if the younger kids get taken there first, to work off their touchy-feely energy?

There are some models of prehistoric creatures that are a nice addition to the Nebraska/South Dakota “fossil freeway“, including the massive baluchithere (see the Wildlife World website for a photo of this giant).

A safari through Wildlife World can help a person develop some respect for the amazing diversity of life on earth. While there is some information given about where the animals come from, there were a few instances of displays that gave an inaccurate impression of a creature’s life history. I imagine some of this is a result of the helter-skelter nature of the collection. “OK, just got another donation. Where are we going to put THIS one?” An example of one that bothered me: a cheetah in the jungle. Whaa? Cheetahs need room to run in order to hunt. They don’t typically live in thickly-overgrown jungles. Maybe it’s why this little guy looks so sad, located right next to a couple of properly-sited, forest-dwelling leopards:

But for me, the real thrill of Wildlife World is not the gee-whiz educational value . . . it’s the full-on weirdness of the place. Walking though Wildlife World, I wished I had a thesaurus handy. Bizarre. Quirky. Outlandish. Idiosyncratic. Peculiar. Freakish. Zany.

Um, why is there the glittery word “peace” on the moon above the killer polar bear?

Why, oh why, is the Indian guar lit with a demonic red light?

What the . . . ?

*facepalm* Yes, there are several jackalopes in the museum. Wait until you see the squirrels-on-saddles series.

OK, so the giraffe specimen isn’t an oddity to most folks, but if you have a twisted sense of humor and you’ve seen a particular Saturday Night Live episode, it will make you laugh.

I imagine that old building costs a fortune to heat and cool to keep the specimens in the appropriate temperature range. The day we visited, I felt right at home in the Arctic exhibits. On the second floor, chill wind seeped in around a wall-mounted air conditioning unit. (Tip: if you visit in winter, wear a parka.)

(UPDATE: My first understanding of Wildlife World’s situation wasn’t quite correct.)

But in all this glorious strangeness, there is tragedy. Wildlife World is not self-sustaining in this economy.  Given a lack of generous, eccentric, millionaire benefactors, The museum is combining faced two options: close, or combine with the Riverside Zoo and Children’s University into the Riverside Discovery Center. The tragedy is that the new building will not be nearly large enough to contain all of Wildlife World’s specimens. According to a news article, “a number of displays from Don Steen’s Wildlife World . . . would be changed on a regular basis to provide something new to see during different visits.”

In some respects, this could be a good thing. Some of the specimens in the museum are duplicates; some of the small mounts are ratty looking and may not worth displaying anyway. Maybe the displays could be rearranged and more context provided so that they are more educational.

But there’s a huge downside. How are you going to move the murals and scenery? And what about the poor baluchithere? Will there be enough display space for him? Can he even be removed from his home in the depot? And, if a more educational exhibit is developed, visitors would completely miss out on the endearingly madcap randomness of the place.

If you’ve not yet experienced Wildlife World in its current incarnation, go! Go now! I understand that they will remain open through the high tourist season of summer, and they plan to remain open for school fieldtrip season in the fall, but beyond that, access to their offbeat displays is uncertain.

Go to Wildlife World! You’ll be amazed.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2010 11:31 am

    Superb observations! Great pitch for people to go see for themselves!

  2. Anne James permalink
    April 9, 2010 11:58 am

    I am part of the Riverside Discovery Center Board of Directors. Would you be interested in working with us to merge Wildlife World into the Riverside Discovery Center? We are always looking for people intested in helping to make our community better & it sounds like you liked Wildlife World.We have various committees you can choose from to work with our board. Let me know if you are interested.

  3. Michelle permalink
    April 9, 2010 1:22 pm

    The gigantic awe inspiring prehistoric rhino thing probably won’t be moved to the Discovery Center. We were told yesterday that it would probably cost around $50,000 to 75,000 to move. You would have to take to roof of the depot and crane it out.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      April 9, 2010 10:16 pm

      Wow. So I assume it must have been assembled on site and can’t be disassembled without wrecking it. No fun!

    • ron permalink
      April 15, 2010 1:38 pm

      l. We are not leaving because we can not sustain ourself. 2. We have now decided that moving the baluchithere(prehistoric mammal ) is a doable project. 3. Please let me know what animals you think are ratty and I will be more then happy to change them out. Ron

      • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
        April 15, 2010 1:47 pm

        I misunderstood the situation the first time I talked with you. I’ve updated my post. I think the animals that bothered me were some of the smaller ones, but I can’t remember specifically.

  4. Kori permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:31 pm

    I am crying I am laughing so hard. I love people, people with a passion for things and sometimes it’s the little experiences that give us the best stories!

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      April 9, 2010 10:14 pm

      I’m very happy to know I made someone laugh. Now, were you laughing with me? Or at me?

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