How major overhaul aims to make Willowbrook Wildlife Center friendlier to environment, animals

  • A rendering by Wight & Company shows plans for a new clinic and visitor center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

    A rendering by Wight & Company shows plans for a new clinic and visitor center at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Courtesy of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

Posted4/14/2022 5:30 AM

A new wildlife clinic and visitor center could become the first "net zero" building in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Forest preserve commissioners are set to move ahead with plans for a $29.2 million re-imagining of the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, a haven for sick, injured and orphaned animals.


The three-year project would represent the most extensive overhaul of Willowbrook since the wild-animal rehabilitation center opened in 1956.

The new clinic and visitor center would replace a 42-year-old building that's been running out of room amid a crush of animal admissions. Willowbrook takes in about 10,000 annually, a dramatic increase from a few decades ago.

"It's a community jewel, and the thing is it's just being overrun," forest preserve President Daniel Hebreard said. "We just have had copious amounts of animals just come in more and more over the years."

Spurred by concerns over climate change, forest preserve commissioners aim to go "net zero" in developing the 27,000-square-foot clinic building, meaning it would produce as much energy as it consumes. The board is expected to vote Tuesday on a contract to hire Wight & Company as construction manager.

"It's a new animal hospital, which is incredibly important to our community, and being done net zero makes it a great project, too, for green leadership," Hebreard told the Daily Herald.

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The Willowbrook building would use a geothermal heating and cooling system. Solar panels mounted on the roof and ground would convert sunlight into electricity. Energy-efficient features throughout the building also would reduce its carbon footprint.

"This component of the project will proudly show we are also committed to sustainability and to doing our part to fight climate change," Hebreard said at a board meeting Tuesday.

The new clinic and visitor center are expected to open to the public in mid-2024. The forest preserve district hopes to complete the entire project -- over four phases of construction -- by 2025. The first phase could start late this summer at the earliest.

The board last November approved issuing $41.5 million in bonds to fund the revamp of Willowbrook, renovations of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, other master-plan projects and land acquisition. Officials say they will not have to raise property taxes to complete the projects. The district has the bonding authority to issue debt without voter approval.


About $22 million from the bond sale will pay for the Willowbrook project. The district is pursuing an additional $3.5 million in grant funding. Officials say they've already secured $3.7 million in private donations to support the project.

The district also plans to build several new amenities -- an interpretive trail with wildlife observation areas and an outdoor classroom -- in addition to exterior enclosures for animals at Willowbrook.

Notably, permanently disabled animals housed at Willowbrook would trade their zoo-like cages for new, larger enclosures away from public view.

Citing research on stress in captive animals, Willowbrook caretakers plan to end a decadeslong practice of exhibiting creatures that wouldn't make it on their own in the wild.

Owls, hawks and other raptors with eye and wing injuries are among the Willowbrook residents that live in aging, dilapidated and undersized enclosures set for demolition along a woodsy trail, Willowbrook staff members say.

The new enclosures, however, would give resident and rehab animals built-in predator protection and the choice of both indoor and outdoor space.

During the first phase of construction, the structures would be built among several existing buildings at the north edge of the preserve property, moving resident animals from public areas.

Still, one-way glass windows in the new clinic would give visitors an inside look at the rehabilitation process: intake, examinations, feedings, surgeries and follow-up treatment to nurse injured animals back to health and reintroduce them to the wild.

About 60% of the main building would be dedicated to animal care, with public engagement and education areas accounting for 15%, said Kevin Horsfall, the district's assistant director of resource management and development.

The existing clinic would still operate during the construction of the new one.

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