WNC Nature Center’s new otter exhibit opens

Olive and Obiwan, the WNC Nature Center’s resident otters, officially moved into their newly renovated home on Thursday, March 10, exploring a new habitat and delighting a crowd of onlookers. The new exhibit space, which serves as a gateway exhibit for the nature center, provides the otters with more space to roam and new kinds of environments in which to explore.

“There’s not many species that have as wide a range of habitat in North America as otters do,” explains the center’s Animal Curator Allison Ballentine. “So we tried to include a good variety of environments.”

That includes adding more places for the otters to hide and a larger amount of substrate – ground material that otters use to dry their fur.

Funding for the exhibit renovation came thanks to a $60,000 donation through the non-profit Friends of the WNC Nature Center. City of Asheville funding was used to augment surrounding areas to match the exhibit’s new look.

The exhibit also includes more observation spots for WNC Nature Center visitors, and is incorporated with surrounding areas like the adjacent turtle pond. Chris Gentile, the center’s director, said the exhibit is the result of a design adapted for the otter’s enjoyment and executed by the contractors on the project.

“They really hit it out of the park,” Gentile said.

To get ready for the big day, Olive and Obiwan were gradually introduced to their new habitat over the course of a week, taking tentative first steps as nature center employees looked on to make sure the animals were safe and unable to escape.

“It took them about 20 minutes for them to go through the tunnel the first time,” Ballentine said. “It was so rewarding to watch them go through and see the habitat.”

On Thursday’s opening event, the otters quickly took to their new home, enthusiastically approaching a housewarming gift of an ice sculpture complete with fish frozen inside.

The otter exhibit has always been one of the center’s most popular attractions, and the new design is enhanced by recently added Appalachian-based plantings and landscaping as well as educational markers. Gentile says the design is indicative of the direction in which the WNC Nature Center is headed. The center, he said, is currently developing site plans for other exhibits in the park that will further enhance the enjoyment of animals and visitors.

“We are getting to the place where each exhibit is telling a story, and that’s right where we want to be,” Gentile said.

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)