'It's extremely busy': As animals keep coming, work to give Willowbrook center some space begins

On the other side of gray curtains, some of the youngest patients at Willowbrook Wildlife Center stay in a makeshift nursery called the "ozone."

Cramped does not come close to describing the space. Incubators on top of incubators, stacks of small crates, a shoe box labeled "feisty," a refrigerator filled with formula, supplies and patient notes line the hallway.

Track lighting glares from the ceiling. A music box plays white noise in the background to help soothe birds. A kind of orphanage has sprung up around their cages, smack dab in the middle of the Willowbrook visitor center.

There are about 75 baby opossums here in the "ozone," and most of them must be hand-fed four times a day.

"As you can see, it's extremely busy right now," said Alicia Biewer, a resident wildlife specialist at Willowbrook in Glen Ellyn.

  Baby opossums wait their turn to be fed at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Brian Hill/

In between those feedings Tuesday, Biewer made time to attend a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new wildlife clinic and visitor building. It's the centerpiece of a $29.2 million transformation of Willowbrook, the only licensed animal rehabilitation center for miles.

Over four phases of construction, the project will reshape nearly every aspect of Willowbrook's operations.

A 27,000-square-foot clinic and visitor center will be built to accommodate the number of animals that end up at Willowbrook, usually injured or motherless. Willowbrook caretakers work often in tight quarters to nurse animals back to health or raise babies until they're old enough to be released back into the wild.

Willowbrook cared for 11,521 animals last year - a record-breaking number. Experts point to several factors for the increase. Privately funded rehabbers who once worked out of their homes have shut down. In northeastern Illinois, Willowbrook, a campus owned by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, remains one of the few rehab centers federally licensed to treat migratory birds.

"It's very expensive and time-consuming and stressful," Biewer said. "I think just a lot of people can't afford to do it anymore."

As the county's population has grown, as urban sprawl destroys natural areas, development causes more conflict between humans and animals. Along with the walk-ins, Willowbrook answered 16,183 phone calls in 2021, many with inquiries about wildlife encounters.

"Most of our opossums come here because their mom has been hit" by a vehicle, Biewer said. "A lot of times she's hit, she doesn't make it, but the babies are still OK in her pouch."

She weighs the tiny, rescued babies on a scale and feeds them with a syringe in an area where visitors are no longer allowed. The visitor center initially closed due to COVID-19. But the building also remains shuttered because of limited space.

  Baby opossums wait their turn to be fed in a visitors center filled with animal patients at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Brian Hill/

In the new clinic, opossum patients will be treated in a room with one-way windows. Visitors will get an up-close view of exams and even live surgeries.

"There's going to be a lot of educational opportunities in the new visitor center," Biewer said.

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

Citing research on animal welfare, Willowbrook plans 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 geriatric Willowbrook residents that live in aging and undersized enclosures set for demolition along a woodsy trail.

"This is our turkey vulture resident animal," Dr. Sarah Reich, the center's head veterinarian, says in a video on the project. "She is very stressed on display. She doesn't love when people come up really close to her cage."

  An indoor classroom in the Willowbrook Wildlife Center visitor building is now being used to rear about 35 baby cottontails. "Our intake has just kind of gone through the roof," said Alicia Biewer, a resident wildlife specialist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Brian Hill/

The new enclosures will give resident animals both indoor and outdoor holding areas. During the first phase of construction, the structures will be built at the north edge of the preserve property, moving resident animals from public areas. Willowbrook experts say those private environments will be less stressful for the permanently injured animals.

Forest preserve district officials also touted the project for its climate-friendly design. The district will go "net zero" in developing the new clinic building, meaning it's intended to produce as much energy as it consumes.

The two-story structure will use a geothermal heating and cooling system. A 550-kilowatt solar array will convert sunlight into electricity. Energy-efficient features throughout the building also will reduce its carbon footprint.

"The Willowbrook master plan incorporates the latest science about wildlife rehabilitation with the best technology for green infrastructure," said Karen Gray, the district's landscape architect supervisor.

As for funding, forest preserve commissioners 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.

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

The new clinic and visitor center are expected to open in mid-2024, and the entire project is expected to be done by 2025. Wildlife rehabilitation will continue uninterrupted throughout the project.

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