A pair of bobcats are taking center stage this week in Wheaton following the unveiling of Cosley Zoo's first new wildlife exhibit since the late 1990s.
The 10-year-old bobcats, Salvatore and Valentino, arrived in August from a humane society in California and moved into their 20-foot-high exhibit -- the tallest in the intimate, 5-acre zoo. The zoo lifted the curtain on the enclosure Friday.
If you goWhat: Bobcat exhibit at Cosley Zoo
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through October
Where: Cosley Zoo, 1356 N. Gary Ave., Wheaton
Cost: Included with admission of $3 for adults, $2 for seniors; free for children, members, and Wheaton Park District residents
Info: (630) 665-5534 or coslyzoo.org
Zoo officials had coveted the elusive hunters since they listed the bobcat on Cosley's animal collection plan in 1990.
One of only two wild cats native to Illinois, bobcats nearly vanished in the 1960s after a severe loss of woodland habitat and extensive hunting. But moratoriums on the practice and habitat preservation translated into a comeback for the nocturnal creatures, says zoo Director Susan Wahlgren.
Sitting in a highly developed area, Cosley will trumpet that conservation success story to visitors, ripe with lessons of coexistence and tangible practices to protect natural areas, Wahlgren said.
"We're a little bit unique in that we're small," Wahlgren said in a recent interview at the exhibit. "We focus more on native things, things in your backyard. But our conservation message is very relevant."
The Cosley Foundation, the zoo's fundraising arm, and a $300,000 matching grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources supported the exhibit's nearly $700,000 price tag -- eclipsing an earlier $580,000 estimate.
"Yes, we could have done less rock work than we did," Wahlgren said. "Yeah, we could have cut back on some things. But you get to the point where you feel like, to really make the exhibit the right way for these guys, you have to really decide either you are going to do it right or you're not going to do it."
The exhibit's seamless, stainless steel netting offers prime viewing of creatures rarely seen in the wild. Tracks typically are the only clues to their whereabouts on rocky ledges and cliffs in the southern and northwest corners of the state. Heated rock work in the exhibit draws the bobcats onto unobstructed areas. Plus, Val is the "gregarious" one and regularly approaches the exhibit's barrier near spectators, Wahlgren said.
A water feature cascades from rock work along a building providing a holding area for the bobcats, two males who are brothers and weighing more than 30 pounds. Sal and Val have spent nearly all of their lives at the humane society and are non-releasable animals, Wahlgren said.
"They really are very quickly adjusting to the environment," she said.
The pair recently played between tree logs on a sunny afternoon, one crouching down and seemingly stalking a white-tailed deer in a neighboring exhibit. Although bobcats seldom have been known to hunt deer, Wahlgren said the zoo's deer are briefly enriching for Sal and Val.
Cosley feeds the bobcats with a mix of commercial meat product and whole prey such as rodents. Four zookeepers will work to train the creatures through operant conditioning and protective contact.
That means staff will use primarily food to shape and reinforce behaviors through a barrier. As a result, the bobcats will take part in their care cooperatively, Wahlgren said. The process enables zookeepers to give animals vaccinations without having to catch them -- preventing stress and injury to both animal and human.
Staff also delivers enrichment by scattering food and toys in different ways.
Wahlgren expects a hike in zoo attendance into late fall with the addition of the exhibit. The last major construction project was two years ago, when the zoo overhauled the pig and chicken exhibit.
"You've got to change things up," Wahlgren said. "We just want to keep people coming and invested in the zoo and what we do."