WNC Nature Center Director Chris Gentile was sworn in as a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Sept. 10. At the AZA’s conference in San Diego, he took a place at the table of an influential international group of leaders in wildlife conservation and zoo management.
AZA represents more than 230 institutions in the United States and overseas. According to its website, it is dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. The board meets monthly for a conference call, then three times a year face to face, including the national conference, where Gentile was sworn in.
Members of this board set the national conversation on issues such as humane elephant care and keeper safety, best practices for managing enclosed marine animals and saving endangered species worldwide. They are considered top leaders in their field and called upon by national media as experts.
“The exciting thing about us being on the AZA is we get to be on the same level as the big boys, participate in the conservation programs and educational initiatives,” Gentile said.
Because the WNC Nature Center is an AZA-accredited facility it just won a third nature play grant from Disney, this one for $5,000.
Dues the WNC Nature Center pays to AZA help promote wildlife rehabilitation and saving endangered species.
“AZA-accredited organizations participate in conservation efforts as a collaborative,” Gentile said.
It has an initiative called Saving Animals From Extinction, also known as the SAFE program. “The goal of SAFE is try to get every AZA facility to contribute money to this cause,” Gentile explained, so that more money is raised to aid in a cause rather than one facility bear the financial burden.
One example Gentile pointed to was the effort to save the California Condor. According to National Geographic Magazine, “when the wild population dropped below 10 individuals, all of the remaining wild condors were brought into captivity in 1987. Through the efforts of many organizations and individuals, reintroduction of California condors began in 1992.”
Today about 127 birds live in the wild, so they are still threatened but not endangered.
At the WNC Nature Center, species preservation is focused on a few animals, most notably the red wolf. In 1980, the red wolf was declared officially extinct in the wild. With only 250 captive red wolves currently in the United States, this species’ survival relies on programs like the AZA’s Species Survival Plan. As one of only 46 red wolf breeding sites, the WNC Nature Center is a crucial partner in this animal’s survival.
Beyond his new role on the AZA Board of Directors, Gentile remains focused on making the animal care and guest experience at the WNC Nature Center the best it can be. Under his tenure, the center hired a staff veterinarian to enhance animal health.
And initiatives to enhance the guest experience have translated into higher attendance. These include a new nature play area and restroom facilities at the far end of the park, adding gift and food opportunities and more recently the mining sluice geology play and educational experience.
Earlier this month, the WNC Nature Center had “a humungous attendance weekend,” Gentile said – 2,542 people for the three-day Labor Day weekend. “We are now at 102,109 guests for the year. This is the earliest we have ever eclipsed the 100,000 mark.”
“Once we started to pay attention to the guests we saw the numbers of our visitation increase,” he said.
Visitors have more enhancements coming their way in the next year, when the center adds a new entrance and expanded parking area.
Finally, Gentile has worked with City Manager Gary Jackson and City Council on a three-year plan to reduce the tax-payer subsidy to the center. It has gone from a 60% reliance on City funds to 30% with a projected 20% next.
With a $1.3 million operating budget, the City had been paying the $600,000 for the center’s operating costs. That number is down to $250,000 a year now.
“Chris is recognized for his expertise and leadership in the zoo world. We are very fortunate to have his level of professionalism at the Nature Center,” said Debbie Ivester, Asheville Parks & Recreation Assistant Director. “Among his many attributes is his leadership in the Nature Center’s 2020 Vision Plan, which is our guide to enhance and build out the future of the Nature Center keeping it a viable and lively zoo experience for Western North Carolina.”
With his past experience from Riverbanks Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo, and now seven years as director of the WNC Nature Center Chris Gentile brings a wealth of experience not only to Asheville, but now the international zoological stage.
Want to visit the WNC Nature Center?
The center, 75 Gashes Creek Road, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Visit http://www.wncnaturecenter.com for admission prices and information on special events.