The World’s Wildlife in Indiana
by Kathy Schwartz
A small boy on a rural Huntington, Indiana farm had a big dream—he wanted to see and experience the world. Sumner Sheets became a farmer but held onto his dream and realized it many times over as a world-class hunter and fisherman.
Sumner’s home became a show place for the animals he collected. As the number of specimens reached over 100, his friends and acquaintances realized the exhibits needed to be displayed and preserved for generations to come. That marked the beginning of the Sheets Wildlife Museum.
“He literally had every nook and cranny in his home filled,” explains Chelsea Heiney, executive director of the museum. “One of the bear mounts was in the front foyer so you could see it through the front door. I would never have trick or treated at that house.”
The mission of the museum is to promote and educate others on conservation and ethical hunting. Sumner Sheets was an ethical hunter—he always hunted legally, having the right permits and licenses, and only in season. Several of his trophies were taken on conservation hunts, those focused on animals that are causing problems with surrounding populations.
“We have animals in here that have killed people, or they had become a nuisance to the society that they were around. Some had left the protection of preserves repeatedly and were attacking cattle and people,” says Chelsea.
In 1996, Sheet’s last safari turned into a conservation hunt. Lions had left the Kruger National Park and its wildlife preserve and attacked cattle. The lions were brought back to the preserve and left again because they had gotten the taste of fresh meat. It was becoming a problem for the cattle growers in that area because their livelihood was based off cattle sales. Local authorities called Sumner.
Chelsea emphasizes, “His trophies were taken at a time it was legal to hunt these species. Back then, when he first started hunting, conservation was a new idea that people were starting to realize.
“We have tigers here at the museum. We have a black rhino. These species are considered endangered or extinct now. People have to remember he hunted before the Endangered Species Act of 1973.” As people became aware of the importance of conservation, educating the public on the necessity of preserving and managing animal populations became apparent.
Sheets traveled the world. It is not surprising that the museum is arranged showcasing the various continents of the world. Each of the 130 or more taxidermy specimens is of high quality. Each display is accompanied by information not only concerning how and where the specimen was taken, but including facts about the species, as well.
Sheets Wildlife Museum has a 3-D theatre that seats 56. It also doubles as a meeting room.
“We have an intro video that is about Sumner, but we also have National Geographic 3-D videos that are available,” Chelsea says.
The fourth Saturday of every month is movie night. After a movie is shown, patrons can tour the museum.
“Any other time, you need to call and set up an appointment because it does take time to set up the theater, sync the digital viewing glasses, and prepare the video.” Chelsea adds,.
“We hope to have Meerkats in the theater soon.”
Sheets Wildlife Museum is a not-for-profit organization. There is a ten-member board that oversees the business of the museum. Brenda Knepper, Sumner’s daughter, is one of the board members.
“We always welcome more board members,” Chelsea adds. “I am the only paid employee. We are mostly a volunteer staff. “
Operating funds are always a concern, but the Huntington County Foundation has been very supportive. The latest grant enabled the museum to purchase the 3-D projector for its theater. An annual banquet remains the main source of income for the museum.
“It is August 26th at the Forks of the Wabash,” says Chelsea. “Last year, we had our biggest attendance of 150 people. It keeps growing every year. Our target audience is hunters and youth. When they find out we are auctioning off a gun safe and guns, the tickets almost sell themselves. “
As for the future of the museum, Chelsea realistically states, “We would like to be sustainable and to run efficiently.” In regard to the everyday workings of the museum, Chelsea is planning on expanding the programs available.
“In the past, we have not focused on school groups. That is my goal—to get more school groups in here. I have worked on making new packets to send to the schools and lesson plans that are fun, interactive, and easy.”
Chelsea is also working on creating interactive programs to run on iPads that visitors can use. Technology is the key to getting more involved.
Reaching out to the community is another goal for the future. “A goal is to be known and visited by members of the community. We have had nursing home groups taking a day trip, YMCA day camp, and even a cadet program.”
Chelsea is also looking forward to beginning her masters program in not-for-profit management at Indiana University in the fall. She can’t wait to return and apply her higher education at the museum.
The small boy’s dream has evolved into a unique and interesting adventure for those who enter the Sheets Wildlife Museum. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Do not let the opportunity to visit go unexplored.
Sheets Wildlife Museum & Learning Center
200 Safari Trail
Huntington, IN 46750