7 In Your Neighborhood: Willowbrook Wildlife Center

February 4, 2012 9:04:03 PM PST
One of the nation's leading animal rescue facilities goes about its work in the unassuming pastures of DuPage County.

The Willowbrook Wildlife Center takes in hundreds of owls, eagles and other regional wildlife every day, nursing them to get back to the wild, or preparing them for a life in captivity when they're just too injured to make it anymore.

Each day except major holidays, the education center opens kids' eyes - for free - to the wonders of nature

What do children get out of having close encounters with the wild?

"Besides learning about the creature itself, they can learn respect for nature, seeing that it is real, that it lives in their community," said raptor handler Heidi Reilly.

And in their community, animals large and small are injured in many ways. One golden eagle has a bad wing while another, who was hit by a car and now lives here, is unable to fly. It is happy it seems perched on a discarded Christmas tree.

A male barn owl is in a defensive posture, protecting his mate, even if he'll take food from people

One great horned owl got in a fight with a skunk. Full time staff veterinarian Dr. Jen Nevis treats about five animals a day. In the summer, the number jumps.

"What I am feeling is down the center of their breastbone called their keel and you should feel nice muscle on both sides of that and on his it feels like a couple of ski slopes so he's been not eating and not doing well for awhile," Nevis said of the owl during an exam.

Nevis said the male owl has a 50 percent chance of returning to the wild. But because he seems to be able to handle humans, he might make a good addition to a zoo or nature center. The DuPage County Forest Preserve runs the $1-million-per-year center.

"(It's) an education center trying to keep people in touch with nature," Nevis said. "What that is really about? I think that's invaluable, especially in the Chicago area, where there is so much development."

There are 40 acres of nature trails and displays of these injured animals new homes. Center manager Sandy Fejt feels blessed to call this her office

"I didn't want to be a corporate 9-to-5er anymore," Fejt said. "I wanted to do something that is rewarding.

"Look at where we are. It is the most beautiful place. You can just walk out, take a hike on the trail, see people and animals?it is the best of all the worlds."

Back in the education center, grandparents marvel at nature's hold on the next generation

"I hope we don't lose it," said Lee Evan, who visited the center with his grandson. "That's how important it is."