What to expect from a $24 million redesign of Willowbrook Wildlife Center
A red-tailed hawk named Professor came to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn about 20 years ago with a wing injury.
Like his caged brethren, the raptor can't fend for himself and now spends his days in an outdoor exhibit, among a collection of resident raccoons, owls, turkey vultures and other creatures with permanent disabilities.
Their enclosures, situated along a wooded trail and exposed to the elements, are showing their age. Most are between 20 to 30 years old. During the summer, caretakers put up shade canopies in sun-drenched cages, and in the winter, they try to block out frigid winds with tarps.
But a transformative project -- by far, the largest undertaken at Willowbrook since it opened in the late 1950s -- would give resident wildlife new habitats and change the way visitors interact with them.
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, which owns the Willowbrook property, has yet to finalize a scope for the project, but initial estimates put the base cost at $23.7 million over four phases of construction.
One aspect of the plan would demolish enclosures on the exhibit trail to make way for a new visitor center and wildlife clinic.
Most Willowbrook patients are nursed back to health and reintroduced to the wild. Animals that can't be released back into the natural world because of eye trauma, arthritis and other conditions would move from a traditional zoo-like setting to new enclosures away from public view.
Willowbrook experts say those private environments would be less stressful than keeping permanently injured animals on display. Enclosures would be grouped by species type -- predators with predators and prey with prey -- to isolate animals from noise and other stressors.
"We're going to make sure that we provide them the best quality of life and treat them as humanely as possible, but still allow people to engage and see that process in a manner that is non-stressful for them," said Kevin Horsfall, manager of the district's planning department.
Willowbrook plans to capture daily enrichment and training sessions with resident animals via live video feeds broadcast either in the visitor center or potentially on the district's website.
What might be a bigger hit with visitors: Large, one-way glass windows with views of clinic exam rooms, holding areas and even live surgeries. Visitors could see baby animals -- a fluffy screech owl, for instance -- being treated and fed.
"Visitors are going to be engaged in that process, the behind-the-scenes look that currently no one gets to see unless you're a volunteer or a staff member," Horsfall said.
As the county's population has increased, so has the number of injured and orphaned wildlife brought to an existing clinic built more than 40 years ago.
"DuPage County has grown by nearly 250,000 residents in the last four decades, and the impact of our human footprint directly impacts local wildlife," said Anamari Dorgan, the district's director of community engagement services.
Willowbrook now treats roughly 10,000 animals over the course of the year. At any given time, the center can house anywhere from 900 to 1,000 animals.
The increased demand has created a space crunch. The visitor center initially closed due to COVID-19. But the building also remains shuttered to the public because of limited capacity. Back in May, Willowbrook had to use a classroom to care for baby cottontails and squirrels.
"Right now, they have to fully utilize every square inch of the inside of that center for space," Horsfall said. "They have cages and animal kennels stacked on top of each other because in order to provide the appropriate space for these animals, they have to utilize those areas right now that typically would be open to the public."
The one-story visitor center and clinic would be demolished and replaced with a two-story, 27,000-square-foot building with an outdoor classroom toward the south end of the site. On the first floor, a 2,370-square-foot public exhibit hall would contain the viewing windows into exam and surgery rooms.
Pulling back the curtain on rehabilitation also allows the district to educate people about human impacts on wildlife and how to better live in harmony with animals native to Illinois, Horsfall said.
At the north end of the property, new enclosures would be built for songbirds, waterfowl and aquatic mammals, turtles, small and large carnivores and raptors.
Those enclosures and habitats would provide adequate space, built-in predator protection and exposure to and shelter from natural elements, Horsfall said.
The district has nearly $3.5 million in hand from private and public sources. Another $240,000 has been pledged through private gifts to Willowbrook.
Officials also are looking to offset costs with grants, rebates and incentives, some of which would require adding sustainability features to the project scope.
"We are potentially pursuing anywhere between $4 million and up to $7 million in other funding sources for this project," Horsfall said.
Some district commissioners have expressed support for making the visitor center and clinic a "net-zero" building designed to create as much energy as it consumes. The board is still considering whether to install solar panels, a geothermal system, a quieter method of heating and cooling the building, and a rainwater harvesting system, among other green features.
"This is something we need to be a leader in," Commissioner Tina Tyson-Dunne said.
In addition, financial planners are studying the possibility of borrowing money.
The district has the bonding authority to issue debt and help fund the project without voter approval. Available reserves could be used to repay debt.
"We're sensitive to not having a tax increase," Finance and Administration Director Jack Hogan said.
If the board moves forward with the project, the first phase -- construction of some outdoor enclosures -- could tentatively begin next summer. All work could be completed in 2025.