Otter exhibit expansion coming in January

Olive and Obiwan, the otters of the WNC Nature Center, are getting a home renovation that will expand their habitat by 50 percent. Construction on the center’s most popular exhibit is expected to be completed in January, and will make it more accommodating to the otters’ needs as well as more interactive for WNC Nature Center visitors, says Assistant Curator Laura Pearson.

The design incorporates the original habitat built in the 1980’s, but adds more natural ground surfaces. “It’s very important for otters to have substrate to dry their fur on,” Pearson says. “The best things are grass and soil. It improves their ability to clean and groom themselves.”

Because the otters are a potential breeding pair (Obiwan was selected in part because of the possibility that he and Olive are compatible) the new exhibit also includes space to separate the otters in case of pups. “It would allow us to give the mother a place to raise pups in a stress-free area,” Pearson says.

The otters will also have more places to hide, and the expanded area will allow nature center animal care staff to provide more enrichment exercises – methods used to stimulate the otters’ minds like hiding food for them to find and simulate their behavior in the wild.

Nature Center Director Chris Gentile says the new design won’t just benefit Olive and Obiwan. Enhanced viewing areas will also mean closer observation points for visitors that bring them “nose to nose” with the otters. New, thicker glass allows for the removal of railings that previously kept visitors from approaching the underwater viewing windows, and interpretive exhibits will also explain the natural history and conservation programs of otters in our region.

Funding for the exhibit expansion comes thanks to the Friends of the WNC Nature Center and a donation by the family of Brandon Horne. The center will mark the grand opening of the new otter exhibit with a specially scheduled announcement and celebration.

The WNC Nature Center was recently reaccredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the otter exhibit is one of several enhancements currently underway there.