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A Passion for Wildlife

Dale and Loti share their living room with animals--their dog Gibbs, a sculpture of polar bears, and a sticker warning birds not to fly into the glass.
Dale and Loti share their living room with animals–their dog Gibbs, a sculpture of polar bears, and a sticker warning birds not to fly into the glass.

Wild animals inspire art, gardening, and a deep connection.

Several years after Loti Woods lost her husband to lung cancer, she moved to Tryon, to the house next to her sister. In her early 60s, she was retired. So what was she supposed to do?

She threw herself into projects. She and her sister, Corrie Woods, brought TEDx talks to Tryon. She helped the Pacolet Area Conservancy—now part of Conserving Carolina—start some butterfly gardens. That made sense. She had always loved wildlife. 

“I was always the kid that was bringing home the salamanders and the snakes in the plastic Kool-Aid jars and saying ‘Hey, Mom, look at what I got,’” she says. “I was the loner kid who took care of the squirrels and the birds. Those were my friends.”

But her projects weren’t enough. 

“I asked, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” she says. “I was so lost.”

After the TEDx event—a year’s worth of work—Loti was exhausted, but she agreed to go out to a gallery crawl in Tryon. 

The artist at one of the shows, Dale Weiler, was supposed to be in New York that night, at another opening. But his sculpture had broken in transit to New York and had to be taken out of the show. So, he stayed in Tryon. 

Dale, who was in his late 60s, hadn’t gotten into art until middle age. Like Loti, he had nursed a spouse through lung cancer. “After she died, I just cocooned,” he says. “ I said, ‘I need some healing time. I need my private time.’” He plunged deep into art, creating the sculptures he’d had no time for while caring for his wife. Wild animals emerged from the stone—owls, wading birds, a gorilla, polar bears. A few years later, Dale was dating someone. He loved his art, but he was burned out from marketing and unsure of his future as an artist.

Loti and Dale met at the show. The next day, they were surprised to run into each other again. On the third day, it wasn’t just chance: Dale went by the park where he knew Loti walked her dog. A few weeks later he broke off his struggling relationship and asked Loti out. Eight days later they were engaged!

“When you get older, time is of the essence,” he says. They got married a few months later. In the three and a half years they’ve been together, they say, their shared passion for wildlife has allowed them to do far more than they could have done independently. Dale says, “Her passion for nature and wildlife rekindled mine.”

Dale gave Loti this sculpture, called Love Knot, as a wedding gift.
Dale gave Loti this sculpture, called Love Knot, as a wedding gift.

Giant Salamanders, Millions of Bats, and Red Wolf Cubs

Soon after they met, Loti says, “We looked at each other and we said, ‘We cannot join the country club and go play golf every day.’”

Instead, they started a collaboration they call Weiler Woods for Wildlife. Dale creates art and Loti does the marketing. When they sell a sculpture, they donate the proceeds to wildlife preservation. Or, they donate the sculpture to organizations that engage the public with endangered wildlife. For instance, Dale’s sculpture of a hellbender peering out from its rock-crevice home is displayed in the North Carolina Zoo, raising awareness of the giant salamanders that live in North Carolina’s mountain rivers. On top of that, Loti and Dale make generous contributions to nonprofits that protect wildlife and their habitat.

Dale and Loti watch millions of bats emerge from a cave in Texas. Photo by Teresa Nichta of MerlinTuttle.org
Dale and Loti watch millions of bats emerge from a cave in Texas. Photo by Teresa Nichta of MerlinTuttle.org

Their advocacy and philanthropy connect them with fascinating people. Like the time one of the world’s leading bat experts invited them to witness the emergence of 15 million bats from a cave in Texas—to stand in awe amid that vast flow of winged life. In July, they’re traveling to Kenya to connect with animals and conservationists who may inspire future projects. Zookeepers who are working to rescue red wolves from the edge of extinction brought them to see some of the rarest puppies on Earth—red wolf cubs nestled by their mother.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Loti says.

They feel energized by the passionate people they meet—from renowned scientists to zookeepers cleaning out stalls—and they see their own energy influencing others, so they feel encouraged.   

“I think a lot of people get frozen in ‘I can’t make a difference, it’s too big a problem,’” Dale says. “We’re never really daunted about that. Like red wolves. How can we help this cataclysmic thing that’s occurring? Well, you can. A little bit here, a little bit there, a donation.

“That’s what we tell our friends. You don’t have to make art to do this. You don’t have to have a website. Find an organization and give them some money. Give them some time. Offer anything that you can that will help them along. It’s going to make a difference.”

A Lively Backyard

While their interest in wildlife sometimes leads them across the globe, they’re also deeply involved with projects closer to their home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains—which the National Academy of Sciences has ranked as the #1 priority in the U.S. for biodiversity preservation

“What we realized is that without habitat, you have no wildlife to save,” Dale says. “And without saving that wildlife, the habitat becomes less important. So, they have to go together.”

Loti and Dale made a donation that enabled Conserving Carolina to buy Pleasant Grove—nearly 150 acres along the French Broad River in Etowah. Conserving Carolina plans to restore a natural floodplain on the land, which had been drained for farming and slated for development. This restoration will bring back lost habitat for all kinds of creatures, from fish and salamanders to mammals and birds.

Loti and Dale also supported Conserving Carolina to protect a mountain bog where some of the rarest plants in the world grow, supporting a unique niche of animal life.  

Loti and Dale planted hundreds of native plants to improve habitat at their home in Tryon.
Loti and Dale planted hundreds of native plants to improve habitat at their home.

They foster habitat even closer to home, on their own three acres in Tryon. They’ve removed invasive plants like English ivy, kudzu, and privet from their woods and planted hundreds of native plants around their house. Paw paws, violets, and other plants attract unique butterflies. Because native plants provide the best food sources for insects, there are plenty of bugs to feed birds. Bluebird boxes, bird feeders, and bubbling fountains further nurture an abundance of birds. Loti and Dale—and their neighbors, Corrie and her husband, Jay Lichty—also share their patch of woods with bear, deer, opossums, raccoons, lizards, turtles, snakes, and frogs.

The Best Things

If they hadn’t met each other, Loti says, “There’s no question that we would have both sort of struggled along.” 

“There’s a message here that it’s never too late,” she says. “It is never too late to find your passion and follow it.” 

They credit certain traits for leading them in the way they needed to go: They were adventurous. They were curious. They weren’t afraid to venture forward.

Having found this life together, they don’t waste their time on things that don’t give them joy. 

Dale says, “We know the fragility of life from what we experienced with our spouses and how important it is to savor every moment.”

“Every single night before we go to sleep, we talk about the best things that happened,” Loti says. “Not the bad things, but what were the best things?”

“Like, we saw a yellow swallowtail butterfly today. Or, our baby bluebirds have just hatched in the box. We saw Corrie smiling about a flower. We had dinner with some really good friends. I read a great article. Or, we talked about insects at breakfast.”

She says, “We look at every day as a gift.”

Dale and Loti show a new sculpture in his workshop.
Dale and Loti show a new sculpture in his workshop.

This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.