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Ask 13: Why are red pandas coming to WNC Nature Center?

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Asheville City Council on Tuesday night approved money for construction of a red panda exhibit at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. (Photo credit: Dave Pape/MGN)

Asheville City Council on Tuesday night approved money for construction of a red panda exhibit at the Western North Carolina Nature Center.

On Wednesday, News 13 got questions about why pandas would be coming to a center dedicated to exhibits on local wildlife.

“Why are they changing back to exotic animals?” Hughie Thomas, of Hendersonville, asked.

The short answer is — they aren't.

From coyotes to copperheads, animals at the WNC Nature Center can be found, well, here in WNC.

So, why is Chris Gentile, the director of the center, trying to bring red pandas?

"We have a 20/20 vision, which is, basically, kind of outlining the next 10 to 20 years of nature center growth, and one of the big things that has been in our 20/20 vision is this idea of Appalachian animals that used to live here, kind of a prehistoric Appalachia," Gentile said.

There were in Southern Appalachia millions of years ago.

"Things like red panda, which is what we're talking about today, sloth, taper, animals like that, at one time, roamed the area that we're sitting in right now,” Gentile said.

Hence, the addition of the red pandas.

"I didn't know red pandas were a local animal," Lesley Roper said with a laugh after getting a brief history lesson.

A few members of city council, who voted to approve more than $180,000 to build the red panda exhibit, barely knew, either.

"It is strange, and I don't think that I'd really want them to branch into too many of those. I like that it's a local animal facility. It's good for us to know more about the animals that are around here or have been. But, I think, they do have a good reason for it, I guess," Roper said.

Gentile said the center has about 10,000 good reasons for it. That is how many of the endangered red pandas are left in the wild.

"If we have success with breeding these animals, it only bolsters their numbers," Gentile said.

The red pandas are expected to be in WNC in November.

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