Wheaton’s Cosley Zoo celebrates 50 years as director prepares to retire

When Sue Wahlgren went to work for the Wheaton Park District, the corner of Gary Avenue and Jewell Road was home to a “real mishmash of things.”

The place at that time was called Cosley Animal Farm & Museum. Back then, you’d find a handful of farm animals, some pheasants, part of an old train station and only one other employee. Wahlgren, an ag major in college, hauled buckets of water.

“We were closed part of the year,” Wahlgren remembers. “We were essentially kind of the roadside little attraction.”

That little slice of donated farmland became a Wheaton institution. Wahlgren, who would never work anywhere else, is celebrating Cosley Zoo’s 50th anniversary this year as she prepares to retire as its director. She imagines the last day will be “bittersweet,” but Wahlgren can be certain of this: she made Cosley Zoo what it is today.

  Sue Wahlgren, who will be retiring as Cosley Zoo director, gets a kiss from Franklin, a resident llama. John Starks/

If you were an animal-loving kid growing up in Wheaton, you dreamed of having your birthday party in the Cosley Zoo barn. As summer turned to fall, you picked out a pumpkin from the Cosley Zoo patch. Around December, the zoo grounds looked like a miniature Christmas Village brought to life, with Santa waving from the roof of Wheaton’s former train station, outlined in warm strands of light.

“I will be ordering the Christmas trees very shortly,” Wahlgren said.

She’s someone who likes change. She’s “easily bored.” And yet she has spent her entire career — spanning 40 years — at Cosley Zoo.

“Where else can you go and see a child’s face light up with a realization of how cool something is when they were afraid of it 10 minutes ago? We’re seeing families making memories together,” Wahlgren said.

‘First zoo experience’

In March of 1984, Wahlgren came to Cosley more accustomed to working with livestock. A decade earlier, what formally was known as the Cosley Children’s Park and Museum opened on land donated to the park district by Paula Jones. It was named in honor of the previous owner and her relative, Harvey Cosley.

“We were only open April through October back then,” said Wahlgren, a self-described “farm girl at heart.”

As the zoo grew, Wahlgren grew with it. She went from hauling those buckets to designing new, more immersive exhibits, launching educational programs and supporting local conversation efforts. Young, state-endangered Blanding’s turtles are being raised in tubs at the zoo, giving them a “head start” and a better chance at survival when they’re released into DuPage County forest preserves.

“The records on these guys that we keep would rival any human’s medical records,” Wahlgren said of Cosley’s resident goats.

  Sue Wahlgren, near Cosley Zoo’s Canada lynx exhibit, will be retiring as the director of the Wheaton institution. John Starks/

She now leads 10 part-time zookeepers. Depending on the year, the zoo draws an estimated 150,000 visitors.

“We want them to have a good time, to connect with the animals, learn how important they are, create some empathy,” Wahlgren said. “These young children, if we can create that caring and empathy at a young age, then they’re hopefully going to grow up to be people that care about the environment and do take actions to make a difference.”

So when Sage and Poppy, a pair of “sassy” Canada lynx, settled into their Cosley habitat from Montgomery Zoo in Alabama, their birthplace, Wahlgren spoke of the threats to the species and their territory in the wild.

“We’re often a child’s first zoo experience, so I think we have a really important role in that,” Wahlgren said.

‘A source of pride’

As she made her way around the grounds on a recent afternoon, greeting the zoo animals, Wahlgren is a walking encyclopedia.

“Hi, Franklin. Yeah, you’re a good boy. I know,” Wahlgren said of Cosley’s llama.

She developed the zoo into a year-round attraction for suburban families. But Wahlgren is most proud of maintaining the zoo’s accreditation.

Situated on five acres, Cosley joined a select group of much larger zoos — Brookfield and Lincoln Park — when it first received the seal of approval from the American Zoological and Aquarium Association nearly a quarter century ago.

“If you look at the rest of the state, there are four towns in the state — four — with accredited facilities,” Wahlgren said. “The fact that Wheaton is one of those, it should really be a huge source of pride for people that live here, that support us, to know that we are at that level, the same level as a San Diego Zoo or a National Zoo, where we meet those exact same criteria.”

  Sue Wahlgren, who is retiring as Cosley Zoo director, greets Dig, an armadillo at the Wheaton zoo. John Starks/

She’s proud of her team and the zoo culture. Everyone is an educator, regardless of their job title. “Progress not perfection” is her mantra.

“Being able to look around and see your fingerprint on everything and see people that have worked here that you've helped to mentor and grow, it's just — it's very fulfilling,” Wahlgren said.

The zoo will officially mark its anniversary on Aug. 17 with a scavenger hunt, animal visits and other special programs. Wahlgren, who lives in rural DeKalb County, won’t retire until early next year.

It’s time, Wahlgren said, for someone else to “come in with that fire and that passion to keep the zoo going in the direction it needs to go.”

The park district will formally say goodbye in January, though Executive Director Mike Benard already presented her with a memento recognizing her 40 years of “excellence and impact in the Wheaton community and beyond.”

“No crying,” Wahlgren said as she accepted the framed picture of a lynx.

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