A Look Back at Willowbrook’s 60th Anniversary Year
It all started on Aug. 14, 1956, when Audrie Alspaugh Chase donated 45 acres of land in Glen Ellyn to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and asked that a portion of the land be preserved as a bird sanctuary.
From that seed was born Willowbrook Wildlife Center, a wildlife rehabilitation center serving DuPage County and beyond. The center now treats more than 9,000 birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians annually and is a model in wildlife rehabilitation.
Main building circa 1991
“This one-of-a-kind facility has earned statewide and national recognition for its mission to rehabilitate injured, sick and orphaned animals and help ensure their safe return to their natural environment,” said Bob Lahey, director of Community Services and Education at the Forest Preserve District.
Willowbrook is open seven days a week and offers a 24-hour helpline (630-942-6200) to the public, as well as after-hours care information. The staff is a great resource for people who find animals. The helpline receives approximately 30,000 calls a year, and the District's professional animal care staff answer more than 10,000 phone calls. The center monitors all calls that come in, which helps them spot trends and see what’s going on with area wildlife.
Only about 10 percent of the center’s patients come to the center as a result of wild animal attacks, disease or severe weather, said Sandy Fejt, manager of wildlife rehabilitation and education at Willowbrook. The other 90 percent are due to human-related causes, including being hit by cars, attacked by pets, colliding with high wires and windows, poisoned, or injured by lawn mowers, construction, gunshots or litter.
Willowbrook is one of the few wildlife rehabilitation centers in the country to have a full-time veterinarian on staff.
True to its mission
Willowbrook cares for native wildlife, provides visitors with close-up views of animals and educates the public, in keeping with its mission to promote a harmonious coexistence between the people and wildlife of DuPage County.
Several native animals with permanent disabilities live at Willowbrook in enclosures along the center’s outdoor exhibit trail. These include bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, red foxes, raccoons, opossums, owls, a turkey vulture, a bobcat and groundhog. Willowbrook is also home to two sandhill cranes, which are a state-threatened species that live in an enclosed wetland bird habitat at the center.
Willowbrook currently has about 100 animals on exhibit. The longest-tenured resident is a painted turtle that’s been at Willowbrook for 31 years. There’s also a turkey vulture that’s lived on-site for 26 years, and Tonka, a great-horned owl who came to Willowbrook as an adult and has been there for more than 25 years.
“These animals allow our visitors to get to see and learn about our local wildlife,” Fejt said. “These animals are right here in your own backyard, and we do our best to help people understand more about them. When you know what’s in your backyard you understand that every animal in nature has a role. We may not always appreciate it, we may not always like it, but they do have a job to do in nature and that’s the message we try to get out there with our animal ambassadors.”
Willowbrook naturalist Leigh Korreck and Tonka the great-horned owl
Willowbrook is the only publicly funded wildlife rehabilitation facility in DuPage County and one of the few in northeastern Illinois equipped to treat native and migratory birds. In addition to caring for native wildlife, Willowbrook welcomes more than 120,000 people annually who enjoy self-guided tours of its exhibits and trails and attend nature-based educational programs for children, adults and groups.
The center’s butterfly garden and sensory exploration garden, which started as a seasonal exhibit to encourage native gardens and plantings, has grown to be so much more, Fejt said. It’s become a great spot to relax and now attracts photographers, field trips and even weddings.
How Willowbrook helps beyond the county
Willowbrook works in cooperation with a number of other agencies and serves as a model and resource for those interested in wildlife rehabilitation. The staff collaborate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Willowbrook also hosts its Urban Wildlife Workshops each year to educate municipalities, police officers and public works personnel about how to handle wildlife they encounter on the job. “We help them realize they’re not alone and we share information and resources with them,” Fejt said.
Willowbrook takes in more than 3,000 birds a year as part of its partnership with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Since 2003, Willowbrook has been treating migratory birds injured when they come into contact with Chicago skyscrapers. CBCM volunteers collect these animals and deliver them to Willowbrook daily during the spring and fall migration seasons. So far in 2016, Willowbrook has received 2,292 birds from CBCM.
Willowbrook has a longstanding relationship with Commonwealth Edison and its employees. For years, ComEd workers have brought injured wildlife they encounter in the field to Willowbrook for treatment. The center also created a training program for ComEd field supervisors to help educate them about migratory bird laws and how to respond to animal rescue opportunities. Click here to see a video about the partnership. In 2015, ComEd donated $10,000 to Willowbrook, which was used to help with the restoration of the sandhill crane exhibit and for animal care.
Other partnerships include:
● Illinois Department of Public Health
● DuPage County Animal Control
● National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association
● Brookfield Zoo
How things have changed
It used to be common to receive songbirds, squirrels, possums and raccoons at Willowbrook. But in the last five years “uncommon” animals such as double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons, eagles and even pelicans are becoming the norm, Fejt said.
In 2015 Willowbrook received a record number of 9,034 patients for treatment. In 2016 the center will surpass that milestone and reach 9,500 patients.
Year-to-date treated and released in 2016:
● 939 mallards
● 1,581 eastern cottontails
● 68 red-tailed hawks
● 61 cooper’s hawks
● 52 great-horned owls
It takes a village
Willowbrook has more than 150 adult and junior volunteers who offer support services on a daily basis, from education to working in the clinic to animal care and special events. In 2015, our volunteers gave us 19,885 hours of time and assistance.
“This group of individuals — volunteers, staff and others — make an extraordinary commitment to care for animals and help other understand our natural surroundings,” Lahey said.
The center is currently raising funds to help support construction of an enhanced raptor dorm for Willowbrook’s eight education raptors, which are permanently disabled birds that are part of the center's education outreach program. The new housing will feature 12 enclosures and a weathering area to provide raptors with enriching and visually stimulating experiences that are beneficial to their mental and physical well-being. So far, $27,000 has been raised for this project through Willowbrook’s Night Owl Benefit in September 2016. To learn more about how to donate, click here.