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Hail of the Wild19-Jun-2000 THE BIRMINGHAM (AL) NEWS | HAIL OF THE WILD
MIKE BOLTON News staff writer
OPELIKA - A day in the life of George Mann is often like an episode from the Discovery Channel. Sometimes it's even like an out-take from the Crocodile Hunter.
There was the day in the picturesque Rockies when a huge elk came within feet of his camera lens. Then there was the day he was charged by a hungry, 13-foot-tall polar bear in the Northwest Territories. That bear fell to a single arrow fired in self defense.
For almost 40 years the Opelika native has traveled the North American continent with camera and bow in hand. He has longed to share the world he knows with others, but he always believed photographs and stories were inadequate to convey the magnificence of what he has seen. Mann was beaming last week, for he believes he has found the perfect answer.
The retired owner of a steel fabrication company saw a labor of love come to fruition recently when he opened the doors of a 35,000-square-foot natural history museum. The museum is already drawing rave reviews from those who have gone through the turnstiles.
"We went down there not knowing what to expect, and we were shocked," said Shonnie Taylor of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel. "It's already jumped high on our list of recommended places for anyone headed to that part of the state."
Mann Museum and Outdoors features more than 250 exhibits of wildlife, saltwater and freshwater fishes, reptiles and insects from North America. All of the wildlife - from a gila monster to the towering polar bear - is mounted full size.
Each animal is enclosed in glass and the exhibit tells a story. The diorama featuring a cautious mule deer, for instance, is a desert scene complete with scorpions and rattlesnakes. These scenes also include vegetation from the animal's natural range. Each exhibit includes a mural painted from pictures from the area where the animal was taken. From elk to wolves to otters and porcupines, Mann didn't take any shortcuts.
"People ask how long to build the museum, and I say two years, but it's something I've really been working on for 20 years," he said. "I got the idea in 1978 when I visited the Denver Museum of Natural History.
"I loved the idea, but I thought that museum was too off limits. It was kind of two-dimensional. I envisioned a museum where people could walk all around the displays and people could actually feel what the velvet on a deer's antlers feel like or what the coat of a mountain lion feels like.
"I just started thinking and planning in mind and over the years it just got bigger and bigger. It's obvious I had too much time on my hands." Personally financed Mann first considered financing the museum through a foundation, but eventually decided he wanted total control. The entire project was paid for out of his own pocket. He refuses to discuss how much money he spent, but a friend suggests the project has cost close to $2 million to date.
"There may come a day a long way down the road that I recoup the money (through admission prices), but that isn't what this is about," he said. "You can't have conservation without education. This is the only way a lot of people will ever get to see what is really out there and why it needs to be saved for future generations."
He spared no expense, his wife, Lucretia, said with a laugh. He hired an artist full time to work on the project and kept him when the museum opened to work on future additions. Fossils on display were carbon dated to find their ages.
When someone suggested it would be nice to have a place for meetings, Mann added a 200-seat room complete with a high-definition television and digital audio. When someone suggested live animals would be a nice touch, he added a 10-acre, fenced enclosure outdoors that allows children to hand-feed and pet deer, peacocks, turkeys and ducks.
The Mann Museum and Outdoors is not a self-built tribute to the owner. While the world-record-holding hunter took most of the animals in the museum with a bow - sometimes carrying them on his back for miles out of the wilderness - nowhere in the museum is Mann's name, or his hunting, mentioned.
Mann, who lives in the Alaskan wilderness up to six months each year, said the reactions of people who have seen the museum since its opening have already made the long hours of planning, hard work and investment worth the trouble.
"I was watching a group of kids going through here the other day," Mann said. "Some would walk ahead of the rest of the group and they'd come running back telling the others that they wouldn't believe what was around the corner.
"That's the kind of excitement I envisioned all those years when I was dreaming of building this place. I want to see every kid in every school in Alabama come through this place."
The museum includes the full North American families of bear, deer, skunk, quail, and wild turkey. Also featured are ducks, wolves, lynx, mountain lions, fox, otters, beaver and dozens of other animals.
Additional displays include authentic Indian and Eskimo clothing and tools, as well as an array of fossils and meteorites.
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