WNC Nature Center opens new cougar exhibit Saturday

On Saturday, April 30, the WNC Nature Center is proud to celebrate the opening of a premier exhibit featuring the center’s newest guests: a pair of juvenile cougars. The event marks the first time since 2007 that the center has exhibited cougars, a species native to Western North Carolina but that is no longer found in the wild in this region.

“This is really exciting for us and a great opportunity for people in Western North Carolina to see an animal that has distinct and deep roots in the region,” said WNC Nature Center Director Chris Gentile.

The grand opening, beginning at 10 a.m., will be accompanied by plenty of fanfare, including a performance by Asheville High’s “Cougar” mascot and pep band outside the center’s entrance and a dance by members of the Cherokee Nation, which has a natural and spiritual connection to the cougar. An assortment of speakers, including Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy will usher in the ribbon cutting at 11 a.m.

The male cougars, acquired from the Oregon Zoo in Portland, arrived at the WNC Nature Center in September when they were a few weeks old. They had been found abandoned in the wild by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and turned over to the zoo, which contacted the WNC Nature Center. The center’s name was on a national Association of Zoos and Aquariums registry in search of cougars to replace the beloved cougar Val, who died in 2007 of old age. After zoo officials contacted the WNC Nature Center, one of the center’s animal curators flew to Oregon to pick up the cubs.

“It was a genuinely serendipitous opportunity both for the cougars and for us,” Gentile says. “This is a perfect example of how we work with other zoos within the AZA.”

Since they arrived, the cougars have been living in a backup habitat out of the public eye while WNC Nature Center staff worked to get them used to the sights, sounds and scents they will encounter at the center.

To acclimatize the cubs to the presence of people, center staff sat outside the enclosure and talked, made noises and even read to the cougars to get them comfortable with the sound of voices.

“You don’t ever want to rush them, “ Gentile says. “It was a long acclimatization process.”

The eight-month-old cougars have already had a chance to explore the new exhibit, but Saturday’s ribbon cutting will mark the first time the public will be able to see them in the state-of-the-art habitat, designed to maximize the comfort of the animals and the interactive experience of visitors.

Even then, Gentile says, the cougars may prefer to hide and conceal themselves, as the exhibit has been designed with those comforts in mind to minimize stress on the cougars and make them feel secure in their new habitat.

The WNC Nature Center’s mission is to increase public awareness and understanding of the natural environment of Western North Carolina. Featuring over 150 animals including otters, black bear and red wolf, the Center is open from 10:00 – 5:00 daily.

The Center is operated by the City of Asheville and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).