Outdoors: Wild WNC

Janna the gray wolf is a supermodel. One of many rescued and endangered animals that call the Western North Carolina Nature Center home, she’s featured on the cover of the current Asheville Yellow Pages. Her supermodel status belies a humble beginning: Janna arrived here in 1993, when she was a mere 4 months old, from Wolf Park, an Indiana-based nonprofit. WNC’s native wolf population was wiped out long ago.

The next supermodel: This bobcat at the Nature Center has a much shorter tail than cougars, which haven’t been seen in the wild here since the 1800s. Photo by Tony Dills

She’s found a home at the Nature Center, along with a bobcat, red wolves, a fox, corn snakes, snapping turtles and other animals that aren’t easy to see in the wild or can no longer be found in our region.

Some folks say cougars still live in these mountains, but Henry Bulluck, the center’s animal curator, doesn’t buy it. “There hasn’t been any physical evidence of them here in 30 years,” he declares. “They’re sometimes confused with bobcats, but a cougar has a long tail, a bobcat a short tail.” That doesn’t stop the true believers, however. “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,” says Bulluck.

Val the cougar—currently the Nature Center’s oldest resident animal—came here in 1991. She was 3 months old and had been confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (in North Carolina, it’s illegal for individuals to keep these wild species). “People get these animals young, and then they grow up to become dangerous,” Bulluck notes.

The Nature Center wasn’t always home to such critters. As far back as the Great Depression, it was a classic zoo with elephants, lions and monkeys. In fact, Henrietta the elephant is buried there. But after a brief stint as a children’s zoo in the early 1970s, financial hardship forced the zookeepers to sell or give away most of the animals.

In 1977, however, the old zoo reopened as the Nature Center, whose mission was to educate the public about the Southern Appalachians’ ecology and natural history. The facility became a sanctuary for rescued animals, a “living museum” of flora and fauna native to the region. Cages were replaced by natural habitat, educational programs were expanded, and more than 2 million visitors have passed through its doors since then. “The Nature Center ought to take credit for Asheville’s ‘clean and green’ reputation,” argues former Director of Education Dan Lazar.

The only remaining non-native critters are the peacocks, which greeted me at the front gate when I visited recently. People love them, says Sarah Oram, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the WNC Nature Center. The group’s mission, she explains, includes “helping children understand the relationship between the animal and its environment and why you may no longer see the animal in the wild.”

During spring and fall, programs for second- through eighth-graders and home-schoolers keep the Nature Center busy, Oram reports. “We could use more classroom space and a visitor center with rotating exhibits,” she notes.

Of course, you don’t need to be a student yourself to visit this facility. Every Wednesday through Feb. 25, the Nature Center will be closed to enable adult volunteers to build and install den boxes, erect fencing, remove trees and add landscaping. And on other days, many older adults enjoy walking the two-thirds-of-a-mile nature trail, which meanders through a floodplain forest down to the Swannanoa River.

Oram, meanwhile, has another idea for the 15 to 20 acres of undeveloped land the trail runs through: a comprehensive species inventory similar to the one Discover Life in America, a Gatlinburg, Tenn.-based nonprofit, is conducting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (see “How Little We Know,” Aug. 20, 2008 Xpress).

“Wild lands are disappearing in America,” she notes. “So the idea is to get schoolchildren involved. If they just look out their door, there are hundreds and thousands of living organisms out there.”

But it doesn’t take a scientific study to delight my granddaughter. Each time she comes from Ohio, I take her to the Nature Center. Bypassing the exotic species, she immediately runs down to the petting zoo to see the sheep and goats. No wonder the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, a regional nonprofit, voted the Nature Center the best place in WNC to take kids. But I like it too.

To learn more about the WNC Nature Center, or to volunteer, visit www.wildwnc.org.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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