A Gateway to the Appalachians, Education and Nature Play: A Conversation with Chris Gentile, Directo

With over two decades of zoo experience, Chris Gentile serves as Director of the Western North Carolina Nature Center and has led a renaissance there. Additionally, he has previously won awards as a zoo educator and serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Gentile is determined to use the WNC Nature Center as a gateway to locals and tourists understanding the natural diversity and ecological value of the Appalachian Mountain ecosystem. Here is his story.

@ Chris Gentile

After getting a masters in education, Gentile was hired by the Cincinnati Zoo’s Education Department. Run by Thane Maynard (the zoo’s future director), the Cincinnati Zoo was one of the first zoos to have robust educational programs. “At the time the Cincinnati Zoo had a program where Cincinnati public school kids could come to the zoo and get their vocational unit in animal keeping,” Gentile explained. “Back then you didn’t need an advanced degree to be an animal keeper so the program provided education [for zookeepers] like an electrician would get.” Gentile coordinated that program for a few years, beginning his career in zoos.

@ Cincinnati Zoo

Chris Gentile next went to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence as Assistant Curator of Education. At the time, the zoo was directed by Tony Vecchio (future director of the Oregon and Jacksonville Zoos) and was undergoing a renaissance. “We had a really, really good team,” Gentile recalled. Among its staff were Director of Education Keith Winston (future director of the Brevard Zoo in Florida) and Conservation Scientist Dr. Ann Savage (future Director of Conservation at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.) “The zoo was becoming the best zoo in New England under Tony’s leadership,” Gentile elaborated. “One of the things we did is really start integrating a lot of nature play. We had a lot of interactive elements in our exhibits.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

All the positive energy at the Roger Williams Park Zoo culminated in the opening of Marco Polo Trail in 1996. “Rather than focusing on a traditional zoogeographic region, we focused on Marco Polo’s journey and what he might have encountered- moon bears, snow leopards, red pandas, takin, camels," Gentile said. "We had someone play the role of Marco Polo in videos across the trail. It was a tribute to the team there- we were making it more like a natural history exhibit.” Gentile credited his time at the zoo for putting him on the path to succeed. “My experience there set me up for trying to lead the profession,” he reflected.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Without even having to move homes, Chris Gentile became the Director of Education at Zoo New England, which oversees Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo nearby. “Brian Rutledge was director of Zoo New England at the time,” he remarked. “Brian is a true visionary and really thinks outside the box.” Before Rutledge, Zoo New England was having issues raising money. “The one thing I’ve always thought hinders the Franklin Park Zoo is its location," Gentile added. "Everyone who lives in Boston gets around on the T but the zoo was not on the T so you couldn’t get there from downtown. Not only was there no public transportation line but we were on the absolute outskirts of the city.”

@ Zoo New England

Rutledge’s successor John Linehan found a practical but effective solution to this problem. “One thing John has done is really look at the zoo as more of a localized attraction for people who lived south of Boston,” Gentile commented. “They appeal more to the population that lives around the zoo. John’s team has done an incredible job and he has made that place a sound institution even though Boston is a tough place to do business.”

@ Zoo New England

Chris Gentile helped Zoo New England’s Education Department soar. “We did a program called Science Stars which focused on ten elementary schools in South Boston,” he remarked. “We really focused on having multiple visits and interactions with the schools. They did five trips to the zoo and we did five trips to each classroom. That was before STEM education became a major public education focus but we were already giving STEM-like opportunities. Up until then not many zoos were doing solid multi-visit, multi-principle programs with inner city kids like we did.”

@ Zoo New England

In 2001, Gentile moved to the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. He was hired by the Director Satch Krantz, who directed the zoo for over forty years. “Riverbanks was an opportunity to do something on a bigger scale,” Gentile remarked. “The opportunity to work with Satch brought me down to Riverbanks.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Immediately, Chris was inspired by all the Riverbanks team was doing. “The team there is so dynamic,” he elaborated. “You feel palpable progress being made. Everyday there was something groundbreaking and forward thinking happening. We were at the forefront of the Bali mynah project and doing unbelievable work on the Asian turtle crisis. It was just magical.” Much of this was due to exemplary leadership by Satch Krantz. “The most admirable thing about working for Satch is that he knew what he didn’t know,” Gentile explained. “He was not a micromanager by any stretch. Satch brought great people in because they knew how to make things successful. He gave everyone the opportunity to perform.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Gentile led the Riverbanks Zoo to the top of the zoo field in education. “We did a program there that also won an AZA education award- Teens in Action in the Community,” he said. “The difference in that program is that we trained high school kids to teach the message of the zoo’s conservation to kids with disabilities. They really made a difference. Not only did it benefit the severely disabled kids no one reached out to but the high schoolers felt they were real contributors. It hit two niches people weren’t doing much with and it’s one of the best education programs I’ve ever seen done.”

@ Riverbanks Zoo

Chris left the Riverbanks Zoo to pursue directing opportunities. While he first worked at a wildlife center in Savannah, he eventually took a position as Director of the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, NC. “It couldn’t possibly be a better fit,” Gentile noted. “We’re very focused on education and local conservation. We’re a small facility but in a great location. We pride ourselves in presenting people with a great overview of this great Southern Appalachian region. People come here to see this landscape- the mountains, the waterfalls. What Western North Carolina Nature Center does is provide a good gateway for people to understand the biodiversity of this region.”

@ WNC Nature Center

The zoo has an interesting history as it evolved from a municipal menagerie. “Back in the 40s, this used to be the recreation area of Asheville,” Gentile commented. “There was a small 2-3 acre area dedicated to a zoological collection- with a very crude menagerie building. In the 70s, the focus went away from the exotics and more to the native animals of our region. The goal was to introduce people to a very specific environment.” “We function as a zoological park,” he explained. “A lot of people are surprised when they come to us and find we offer a rich zoological experience. We have outstanding guest services, concessions, a gift shop- all the things you’d have at a normal zoo. Zoos complement each other extremely well and we all see each other as peers rather than competitors. We have people who come to visit and love us and we say with your membership you can get into other zoos like the Greenville Zoo for free and see different animals.”

@ WNC Nature Center

Gentile has led a renaissance at the nature center. When he came in, he was tasked with building it up and earning the institution greater credibility. “When I first came, we were drawing about 85,000 people per year and had just come over from the county to the city,” Gentile stated. “The city wanted to make it a destination. They wanted the Nature Center to be a showpiece. When I was hired, they were on the table for accreditation from the AZA. One of the first things I had to do was go to make enhancements to us and get back in good standing with the AZA.”

@ WNC Nature Center

“Prior to my hiring, the director of the Center was not a zoo professional and the City wanted to make sure to hire someone that not only knew our profession, but could lead the Center in an ambitious master plan for the future,” Chris remarked. “We hired Schultz and Williams to do our master plan and WDM Architects to do our site plan. In our first year, we created this master blueprint of how we’d run as a business and how we’d use our land. We confirmed we wanted to stay local but also expand. We’ve also made major improvements to the bear exhibit and added cougars.”

@ WNC Nature Center

Since taking over in 2009, Chris and his team have opened a number of new habitats and experiences at the West North Carolina Nature Center. “We’ve built new exhibits for otters and red wolves,” he noted. “We just went to the red wolf SSP meeting at White Oak and are recommended to keep our current pair to breeding. We’ve also built a major indoor facility for reptiles and amphibians. We did a really cool exhibit for hellbender- they thrive in cold, fast moving waters.”

@ WNC Nature Center

@ WNC Nature Center

Additionally, the Nature Center has incorporated several elements of nature play inspired by Gentile’s experiences at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. “We have ten of our 42 acres in the Center focus on nature play and getting kids outside and exploring,” he elaborated. “It’s been a cornerstone of our educational offerings. Length of stay from our guests has increased 45 minutes since we’ve added these nature play areas. We’re modeling good stewardship through playing outside and becoming connected with your involvement. We also have a nature play club in Asheville where all we do is run programs that show people how to play and explore nature on their own.”

@ WNC Nature Center

The Western North Carolina Nature Center is proactive in the conservation of several local species. “We serve as a triage center for injured hellbenders and help nurse them back to health and released them, which is a great opportunity for conservation advancement,” Chris Gentile stated. “We’ve done a lot with bog turtles. Their habitat is shrinking as there are less and less bogs in Western North Carolina than there were 20 years ago. We started a great program where people can apply to us to have an easement put on their land for ideal bog turtle habitat. We’ve also been very successful in breeding red wolves. The red wolf population in the wild is shrinking rapidly so we’re trying to find a safe haven for them in the wild. Since I’ve been here we’ve had eleven red wolf pups.”

@ WNC Nature Center

@ WNC Nature Center

In the future, the West North Carolina Nature Center will be adding descendants of prehistoric animals from the Southern Appalachian region. “There was a fossil cache in Eastern Tennessee, just over the Blue Ridge from us where paleontologists continue to uncover record numbers of fossils of prehistoric animals in the mountains,” Gentile explained. “It was an incredible find and big thing for this area so we want to capture that. Next year we’re adding red pandas as they’ve discovered primate red panda remains in the Tennessee Valley. Red pandas are a direct descendent of these Bristol’s pandas, discovered in Eastern Tennessee. We’re also going to add tapir (hopefully mountain tapir), tree-toed sloths and rhinoceros in the future- other animals plentiful in our region some 5 million years ago.”

@ WNC Nature Center

Chris Gentile has been heavily involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA.) He has chaired the Conservation Education and Professional Development Committees, served on the Field Conservation Committee and last year was appointed to the Board of Directors. “AZA facilities are laser focused on conservation issues,” Gentile remarked. “By working together, we can have a tremendous impact on animals in the wild. Our new Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program makes it possible for zoos to work collaboratively on carrying out and funding conservation programs worldwide. Recently, over 100 zoos and aquariums came together to help raise over $1 million to help the shrinking vaquita population in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. This little known species, the world’s smallest whale, has seen it numbers shrink to less than 50 animals. The money raised will be used to create a protected reserve for the last remaining animals.”

@ Chris Gentile

“If we are to save species going forward, it will take collaborative efforts not only between zoos and aquariums but other like-minded conservation and animal welfare organizations,” Chris Gentile concluded. “AZA and its member facilities have a very strong role to play going forward. Zoos and aquariums are more relevant and important now than they have ever been.”

@ Chris Gentile

#WesternNorthCarolinaNatureCenter #RiverbanksZoo #FranklinParkZoo #RogerWilliamsParkZoo #CincinnatiZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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