The History of the WNC Nature Center
Many long time Asheville residents have memories of the “old zoo,” which had been here since the Great Depression. The original Asheville Zoo housed exotic animals including elephants, lions, and monkeys. Due to financial hardships, the old zoo had to sell or give most of the animals to other zoos. Henrietta the elephant was cared for at the Nature Center until the end of her life. She is buried on the property.
What is now the Friends of the WNC Nature Center, a 501c3 non-profit charity, was formed as the “Western North Carolina Zoological Society” in October 1974, and with the Center staff, developed the mission statement: to educate the public about the natural history, flora and fauna of the Southern Appalachians and to develop public responsibility for its conservation.
Timeline of the Nature Center
May 1973 – Groundbreaking Ceremonies for the new Children’s Zoo and Nature Center
March 1975 – Formation of The Nature Society (now the Friends of the WNC Nature Center) to support the Nature Center.
May 7, 1977 – Grand Opening of the Nature Center, featuring plants and animals of the Southern Appalachian Mountains
Spring 1981 – River Otter Exhibit Opened
1989 – Groundbreaking for new 4-acre Appalachian Predators Area (Phase One was completed in 1991 and featured red and gray wolf habitats. Phase Two was completed in 1998 and featured cougar and bobcat habitats).
1990 – The Nature Center is a participating member in the Red Wolf Species Survival Program, successfully breeding endangered red wolves and providing educational signage and programs for visitors.
September 1999 – The Nature Center is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for the first time. The Nature Center continues to maintain this standard of excellence to this day.
2006 – The Nature Center once again becomes the property of the City of Asheville’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Department after a 25-year contract of ownership with Buncombe County ends.
April 2009 – Small Mammal exhibits for raccoons and red and gray foxes are opened.
2011 – Brandon’s Otter Falls opens with an additional earthen space for the otters to explore.
2012 – The Nature Center welcomes over 100,000 guests for the first time in its history.
2013 – Playgrounds and new viewing areas at the Red Wolf Exhibit are opened.
2015 – Nature Play areas are opened.
2016 – The Mining Sluice opens.
2017 – A new bear climbing structure is built for the Black Bear Exhibit. The Friends of the WNC Nature Center take over management of the Gift Shop.
2017 – Groundbreaking for the New Front Entrance, which opens in October 2018.
2019 – The Red Panda Habitat, the first of the Nature Center’s Prehistoric Appalachia Exhibits, opens to the public.
2019 – The WNC Nature Center sets a new attendance record, with more than 180,000 guests visiting in 2019.
Nature Center 2020
The Western North Carolina Nature Center is proud to present 2020 VISION: A new strategic plan for our future. Highlighting the unique wildlife of the Southern Appalachian region both past and present, the Nature Center will become a true gateway to the incredible world of the Southern AppalachianMountains.
The next phase of our 2020 Vision will feature a new park entrance sequence both for our school groups and visiting guests. Since 2009, the Nature Center has enjoyed a 20% growth in overall attendance and our current entrance experience is becoming more and more outdated as a result. The new expansion will create a special entrance specifically for pre-registered school groups as well as a more accessible entrance plaza for our paying guests.
Parking will be greatly expanded as will guest facilities such as restrooms, merchandise opportunities and concessions sales. Part of the 2020 plan also calls for the Nature Center to connect with new audiences. Through marketing and branding research, we have discovered that our current name may not be conveying the fact that we feature a living collection. We will thus be changing our name in an effort to reach out to new audiences planning a visit to the Asheville area.