Local News

Proposed overhaul of Willowbrook Wildlife Center takes next step forward

Andre the great horned owl and Scarlet the red-shouldered hawk have a few things in common.

Both birds of prey are close neighbors at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Andre’s right eye was surgically removed due to injury, and Scarlet is blind in her left, leaving them unable to fly.

And both permanently disabled birds could be trading in their zoo-like cages for new enclosures with more space and privacy.

To that end, DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioners was expected to vote Oct. 19 on a $1.3 million contract with Wight & Company to advance to the next stage of design work on an extensive overhaul of Willowbrook, a wild-animal rehabilitation center dating to the 1950s.

The project could cost more than $20 million over four phases of construction. Plans call for building a new visitor center and wildlife clinic at the south end of the site near the College of DuPage.

The forest preserve district could go “net zero” in developing the 27,500-square-foot building, meaning it would produce as much energy as it consumes.

“It significantly reduces its carbon footprint, contributes to a healthier environment inside and outside and drastically reduces future utility costs,” said Kevin Horsfall, the district’s planning department manager.

Among the other proposed changes to Willowbrook: about 14 new wildlife enclosures, an outdoor classroom, wildlife garden and trail improvements.

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.

Willowbrook residents now live in aging, “dilapidated” and undersized enclosures set for demolition, officials say. Camouflage netting and tarps reduce stimuli but make it difficult to see into metal cages along a woodsy trail.

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

In 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 away from public access.

Willowbrook houses roughly 50 non-releasable animals in outdoor and indoor exhibits.

“We really want to get away from displaying some of these animals just due to their quality of life,” said Dr. Sarah Reich, the center’s head veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitation and research manager.

Still, video feeds could show enrichment and training sessions. And the public would have other opportunities to see wildlife up close in the new visitor center.

One-way glass windows would look into the rehabilitation process from start to finish: intake, examinations, feedings, surgeries and follow-up treatment to nurse injured animals back to health and reintroduce them to the wild.

“They could see a red-tailed hawk getting his wing wrapped from a fractured wing,” Reich said in a video about the project. “They could walk next door and see a snapping turtle getting fishing hooks removed or a shell being fixed.”

Those patients account for the vast majority of animals under Willowbrook’s care. Over the course of the year, Willowbrook accepts about 10,000, a dramatic increase from a few decades ago.

“Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges we face right now is a lack of space,” Reich said.

The new clinic would remedy those space issues, separate prey and predator species and improve workflow.

“One of the goals of this project is not to increase or expand the capacity of Willowbrook,” Horsfall said. “It’s actually to put it to the right capacity it needs to be for the animals that we currently take in.”

Budget plans

Officials estimate a base plan could cost $24.7 million, including project alternates.

If the district moves ahead with a net-zero visitor building, solar arrays, a geothermal system and other sustainable features would be added to the cost, putting the overall project at $28.6 million.

“But with all the existing funding, donations and gifts we have and then potential grants that we’re going after, we can deliver a project, out of pocket costs, between $20 and $22 million,” Horsfall told forest preserve commissioners last week.

Officials say they would not have to raise taxes to complete the project. The district has the bonding authority to issue debt without voter approval.