How an 'ambitious project' would re-imagine Willowbrook Wildlife Center

  • A research and work area is in the back of the visitors center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

    A research and work area is in the back of the visitors center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County plans to build a new wildlife rehabilitation clinic and visitor center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

    The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County plans to build a new wildlife rehabilitation clinic and visitor center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County this week held the first of three open houses to gather public feedback about proposed improvements to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

    The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County this week held the first of three open houses to gather public feedback about proposed improvements to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Dr. Sarah Reich is head veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitation and research manager at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

    Dr. Sarah Reich is head veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitation and research manager at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/30/2021 11:44 PM

So many hungry mouths to feed, and so little room to do it in.

That's the challenge of the bird nursery at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, a 65-year-old campus where sick, injured and orphaned animals are nursed back to health.

 

Willowbrook currently houses nearly 1,000 animals, requiring a mountain of laundry during the summer: 20 to 30 loads a day.

The bird nursery alone is caring for 160 robins in a cramped room about 10 feet wide by 15 feet long. Birds are fed every 30 minutes to an hour.

"We desperately need more space," said Dr. Sarah Reich, the center's head veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitation and research manager.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County plans to build a new wildlife clinic and visitor center to help handle the crush of animal admissions at Willowbrook, one of the few rehabilitation centers licensed to take in migratory birds in the Chicago area.

Architects are drawing up plans for the second phase of a major campus renovation that also calls for new outdoor enclosures, a new raptor barn and interpretive trails. A new entrance, parking lot and species recovery building were added in the project's first phase for $4.1 million.

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"This is a very ambitious project," said Kevin Horsfall, manager of the district's planning department.

A new welcome plaza and outdoor classroom would mark the public entrance to a 32,000-square-foot visitor center and clinic to be built toward the south end of the district-owned site.

Willowbrook also is looking to give visitors a close-up look at the behind-the-scenes work rehabilitating animals for their release back into the wild.

"We understand that the wildlife really are the rock stars of this center," Horsfall said. "And we're going to do everything possible to provide opportunities for the public to still engage with them in manners that won't create stress."

Willowbrook could broadcast live video feeds of animals in rehab. Large windows with one-way glass could allow visitors to watch every aspect of the rehabilitation process: Animals coming in for their first exam, getting X-rays or ultrasounds, receiving treatment or even orthopedic surgery.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On one day you could see raccoon babies given vaccines, Reich said. On another day you could see a great horned owl baby.

"You could come on any given day, and it could be a completely new experience, which is something, unfortunately, Willowbrook lacks currently," Reich said.

Wildlife experts also want to transition away from exhibiting some of the Willowbrook "residents," wildlife that can't be released back into the natural world because of eye trauma, arthritis and other injuries. That shift comes in response to research over the last decade or so within the entire field of animal medicine, Reich said.

"There's also more focus on the mental health of these animals as well and recognizing that they actually are stressed for the majority of the time they're in a captive setting," she said.

Willowbrook has to use camouflage to envelop some aging, outdoor enclosures and help reduce stress on those animals in public view.

"Many of these structures and enclosures we have don't meet current standards or guidelines," said Horsfall, referencing recommendations from the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. "They've been on the landscape for 30 or 40 years."

As part of the project, existing resident enclosures would be removed. New enclosures would be built to reflect better practices for housing animals. That could include species-appropriate materials and spatial needs.

"Wherever possible or practical, we want to incorporate some more natural habitats into the enclosure," Horsfall said.

The forest preserve district on Thursday held the first in a series of open houses seeking public input on the project. The next one will take place from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in the picnic pavilion at Willowbrook, 525 S. Park Blvd.

The district tentatively hopes to move resident animals into new outdoor enclosures next year and begin construction on the new visitor center and clinic in 2023. All work could be completed by February 2025.

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