There is a lot to enjoy at Asheville’s WNC Nature Center, no matter what your age.

Did you know that Asheville’s 42-acre WNC Nature Center is home to more than 60 species of animals, including playful river otters, large black bears, amazing red and gray wolves and a Western cougar? Next spring, the WNC Nature Center will complete the new Red Panda exhibit, bringing the endangered species to an interpretive exhibit with viewing areas.

WNC Otter swimming at Otter Falls

ALWAYS POPULAR — See the otters frolicking and interacting with visitors at the WNC Nature Center's Otter Falls exhibit.

The importance of animals in our midst

The WNC Nature Center strives to inspire people about conserving wild species and native plants.

“With kids focused on their screens these days, it’s important to get them to look at what’s on the ground and in the air,” said Karen Babcock executive director of Friends of the WNC Nature Center. “If children learn to value animals, maybe there won’t be so many endangered animals when the kids grow up.”

Activities for all ages

“The Nature Center’s audience is mostly young families and Baby Boomers with grandkids, but it’s a marvelous place for adults to learn about native species,” Babcock said. 

Check out the many WNC Nature Center’s special programs:

• Wolf Howl (separate dates for adults and children) — an evening program learning about red and gray wolf ecology and biology. Venture outside with staff to explore the park at night and hear the resident wolves howl.

• Wild Walk (separate dates for adults and children) — a one-of-a-kind, behind-the-scenes tour visiting the small mammal habitat, the predator area and the center’s animal kitchen. Make a reservation, because the junior wild walks have sold out each month.

•  A Winter's Tail Dec. 1 — WNC Nature Center’s annual holiday celebration, with festive crafts, games, photos with Santa and animal enrichment programs.

• Brews & Bears (back May 2019) — an all-ages, after-hours event with craft beer, cider, music, food trucks and up-close view of the center’s black bears.

• Seasonal activities — in the fall, there’s Hey Day and, of course Howl-O-Ween, both family-fun festivals. 

A mission of education, conservation 

The WNC Nature center “connects people with the animals and plants of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region, by inspiring appreciation, nurturing understanding, and advancing conservation of the region’s rich biodiversity.”

Owned by the City of Asheville, the WNC Nature Center is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which honored the Nature Center with the AZA 2018 Education Award for achievement in outreach education. 

“We do outreach as a service to our community,” said WNC Nature Center Director Chris Gentile. “It’s a way to share our mission and educational goals with people who can’t come to us.” 

The center’s full-time educator, Tori Duval, takes the Nature Center’s van “anywhere it helps,” Babcock said. With traveling animals including a box turtle, screech-owl, corn and black rat snakes, opossum and big toads, the program has reached more than 10,000 people from classrooms to corporations and nursing homes.

WNC Nature Center's cougars, Mitchell and Pisgah

BELOVED COUGARS — Pictured are the Nature Center's cougars, Mitchell and Pisgah. Sadly, Pisgah passed away in September. Funds were raised by the Friends of the WNC Nature Center to provide a Weeble enrichment activity for Mitchell.

The role of Friends 

The Friends of the WNC Nature Center is the non-profit membership group, helping create community awareness — and contributing financial resources, via fundraising and events.

The Friends’ many events, memberships, online fundraisers, and grants contribute to large and small projects. 

“We’re raising money for the positive welfare and survival of Southern Appalachian animals,” Babcock said.

The Friends group contributed funds for the new front entrance, the Bear Climbing Structure, the Outreach Education Program and many upgrades in the center including the Arachnid Adventure, a jungle gym-like springy climber for children, to have fun and understand the spider’s web. 

Recently, the Friends raised funds with a Facebook campaign to purchase a Weeble (enrichment activity) for the lone surviving cougar, Mitchell, who has been adjusting since his brother, Pisgah, died. 

“Becoming a member of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center is one of the best ways to support the Nature Center’s mission and ensure the growth of its facilities and programming,” Babcock said. “Members get free admission to the center, discounts for events, educational programs and on-site birthday parties, plus discounts to participating zoos around the country.”

Visit  www.wildwnc.org/membership.

Red Wolf initiative

The WNC Nature Center is active in the national conservation effort to save the red wolf (canis rufus), one of rarest species of wolves. Visitors can see the center’s current wolves, Rozene and Van (who was born at the nature center), up-close.

The world’s last population of wild red wolves is in northeastern North Carolina, and they are closely monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nearly 200 red wolves are thriving in breeding facilities in the U.S. 

Thirteen red wolf pups have been bred at the WNC Nature Center.

“We’re very proud that 13 pups have been born here,” said Leah Craig Fieser, director of engagement for the Friends of the Nature Center. “Animals have to feel secure to reproduce. The AZA species survival program is sort of like ‘online dating’ for endangered species, and they move the animals around to promote breeding.”

The Red Panda

ENDANGERED — Red Pandas are endangered, with less than 10,000 living in the wild. The WNC Nature Center hopes to have a breeding pair when the new habitat is completed.

Symbolically adopt a Red Panda

The newest addition to the center is the red panda habitat, under construction. The Friends of the WNC Nature Center is funding 83 percent of the Asheville City Council’s approved budget for the habitat.

“Red Pandas are also endangered, with less than 10,000 living in the wild,” said Fieser. “We hope to have a breeding pair here.” 

Recently, volunteers planted bamboo in the habitat, since bamboo makes up 90 percent of the red panda’s diet.

Interestingly, skeletal remains of an ancient ancestor of the red panda were at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee.

“The red pandas are the first species to be introduced to the Center as part of the new Prehistoric Appalachia project, part of the Center’s 2020 Wild Vision,” Babcock said.

“Supporting the Red Panda exhibit can be made with an online donation ‘adopting’ a red panda — or purchasing a Red Panda plush at the gift shop, where 100 percent of the proceeds from the Red Panda plush will go to the project.” 

To help in the effort to bring red pandas to the WNC Nature Center, visit www.fundly.com/bringing-red-panda-to-asheville.

New Entrance at WNC Nature Center

SERVING A GROWING NUMBER OF GUESTS  — The WNC Nature Center’s new front entrance includes a plaza, which will be used for events and parties next year.

Thinking ahead

The center’s new front entrance includes a plaza, which will be used for events and parties next year.

“The new front entrance allows us to better serve the growing number of guests with smoother check-in, enhanced parking, a separate entrance for school groups and the use of the Festiva Event Plaza for events,” Gentile said.

With the holidays coming soon, Nature Center gift memberships make a great gift for nature and animal lovers of all ages. Animal-themed gifts from the gift shop may be purchased online at www.wildwnc.org/gift-shop.  

“Teach children about our wild species, and they will grow up caring about conservation,” Fieser said.

That’s something to celebrate. 

The WNC Nature Center, 75 Gashes Creek Rd. in Asheville, is open year-round (closed on four holidays). For hours, call 828-259-8080.For information on the Friends of the WNC Nature Center and membership, call 828-259-8092 or visit www.wildwnc.org.

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