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WNC Nature Center in Asheville

Fun with or without kids

Published in the Mountain Xpress on 01/21/2009

Gray Wolf - WNC Nature CenterJanna, the gray wolf at Asheville’s Western North Carolina Nature Center, is a super model. This year, she’s featured on the cover of the Asheville/Buncombe County Yellow Pages phone book. Janna came to the Nature Center in 1993, when she was four months old from Wolf Park, a research facility in Indiana dedicated to the behavioral study of the gray wolf. The gray wolf was native to Western North Carolina but was wiped out in the late 1800s.

Our Southern Appalachian environment is unique in its biodiversity and no one can explain it better than the Nature Center. But it’s more than a zoo. I spent an afternoon touring this active, educational, and fun place and I didn’t need to bring a child as an excuse. The Nature Center displays bobcat, wolf, fox, corn snake, snapping turtles and more - animals that aren’t easy to see in the wild and in some cases, no longer exist in the Southern Appalachians. And of course cougars, maybe the most controversial animal in our area.

Cougars

Some people debate whether cougars still live in our mountains. For Henry Bulluck, an animal curator at the Nature Center, there’s no question about the existence of cougars. “There hasn’t been any physical evidence of them in 30 years. They’re sometimes confused with bobcats but a cougar has a long tail, a bobcat a short tail - cougars are also known as mountain lion or black panther.” Cougars were last seen here in the late 1800s though they still exist out West. But the public really wants the cougar to roam our mountains. “I regularly get cougar pictures that were taken in Western states or even at the Nature Center itself in order to prove that they’re still around,” Bulluck says.

Val, the cougar, now the oldest animal in the Nature Center, came here in 1991 when she was three months old after being confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was privately owned as a pet - it’s illegal in North Carolina for individuals to own these wild species. “People get these animals young and then they grow up to become dangerous. Val was probably bought from breeders in another state. We also had a male cougar but he developed bone cancer and other health problems and finally had to be euthanized.” Bulluck makes these decisions based on the best interest of the animal involved.

A Little History

The Nature Center, owned by the City of Asheville, started out as a classic zoo during the Great Depression when it housed exotic animals including elephants, lions, and monkeys. But because of financial hardships, the old zoo was forced to sell or give most of the animals. In 1977, it was reopened as the Nature Center with the mission to educate the public about the natural history and ecology of the Southern Appalachians. Dan Lazar, who as Director of Education from 1979 to 1997 expanded the curriculum, believes that “the Nature Center ought to take credit for Asheville’s clean and green reputation. Over two million people have passed through the Nature Center since it opened.”

All the non native animals are gone except for the peacocks which greet me at the front gate. “Visitors love the peacocks,” says Sarah Oram, Executive Director of Friends of the WNC Nature Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the Nature Center.

Oram explains that their educational mission is “to help children understand the relationship between the animal and its environment and why you may no longer see the animal in the wild.” Fall and spring keeps the Nature Center busy with school programs from second grade to eight grade and homeschoolers. With all these programs, Oram says that “we could use more classroom space and a Visitor Center with rotating exhibits.”

For Adults Also

But you don’t need to bring a child to enjoy the Nature Center. From now until February 25, each Wednesday, the Nature Center needs adult volunteers to build and install den boxes, put up fencing, remove trees and add to the landscaping. Many older adults join the Nature Center to walk the 2/3 mile Nature Trail in the back of the property. The trail goes down to the Swannanoa River in a flood plain forest located in back of Manna Food Bank. Oram is working on partnering with Evergreen School to have their students examine the ecology of the trail. It could become a new ATBI (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory) site, similar to the one in the Smokies, where all the species are inventoried. 

Each time my granddaughter visits from Ohio, I bring her to the Nature Center. She bypasses the exotic animals and immediately runs down to the farm animal area where she can pet goats and sheep. Farm animals are always a hit since here the animals aren’t fenced in. No wonder the Nature Center was voted best place to take kids by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

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