On average, 30,000 guests visit the WNC Nature Center in March and April. This year, only 3,700 visited in March before the gates were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nature Center Director Chris Gentile says it’s an unprecedented time: “The Nature Center is typically closed just four days a year – Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Our animals have never gone this long without seeing the public, but the animal care team is there seven days a week making sure they’re well-cared-for and getting the enrichment and interaction they need.”
Temporarily closing the Nature Center has caused a significant loss in revenue for the Nature Center, which is home to more than 150 animals and relies on admission ticket sales to offset animal care costs.
Spring break and early summer are some of the Nature Center’s busiest times, but it’s not just ticket sales that are being missed. The Friends of the WNC Nature Center’s revenue streams have also taken a big hit, as the nonprofit manages many programs that are generated by admissions-related spending.
Friends Executive Director Karen Babcock has seen a 90 percent loss of fundraising revenue since the Nature Center’s temporary closure on March 13. “With the Gift Shop closed and Nature Center Memberships lagging, plus cancelled events such as behind-the-scenes Wild Walks, birthday party rentals, and the May Brews and Bears, fundraising has been challenging. The positive is seeing Nature Center and Friends staff working together creatively to create new income streams to support the Nature Center in a time of great need.”
Just as the animals are adjusting to their new normal, the Friends and the Nature Center are evolving to offer free and engaging videos to the community. “The Nature Center has always been committed to connecting people with the plants and animals of this area. And we’re still doing this during our closure,” says Friends Development Director Kate Frost. “We’re engaging with educators and nature lovers by virtually connecting them to the Nature Center through educational and fun videos on our social media channels.”
Soon after it closed, the Nature Center began offering virtual animal experiences through its social media channels. Nature lovers can connect with the animals and learn more about them with twice weekly videos posted on the WNC Nature Center’s Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/WNCNatureCenter). Videos have included Sicilian donkeys Eeyore and Willy taking a leisurely stroll through the Nature Center to visit the cougar, gray wolves, and red wolves. Facebook followers have also learned of the possible pregnancy of Karma and Garnet, the Nature Center’s breeding pair of critically endangered American red wolves, who would give birth to pups by May if they bred successfully.
Despite decreased revenue due to the temporary closure, neither the WNC Nature Center nor the Friends of the WNC Nature Center has laid off or furloughed any employees. Animal care staff and essential personnel are still on-site taking care of the animals daily, with the remainder of staff working remotely. With both organizations continuing to care for animals and working to provide engaging virtual nature education, the Friends of the Nature Center are asking for the public’s support during this difficult time through donations and memberships.
“Memberships and donations are our only fundraising revenue during this time, and we need our community’s help to ensure that we can continue to support the WNC Nature Center,” says Babcock. “The Nature Center is an essential part of life in Western North Carolina–now more than ever, your help is needed!”
You can support the Friends of the WNC Nature Center by visiting www.wildwnc.org/support to donate, symbolically adopt an animal, or buy or renew your annual membership. All memberships purchased during the closure will begin on the day the Nature Center reopens to ensure a full 12 months of benefits.