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Easy Outing: Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn

If you have a wannabe veterinarian in your house, you'll definitely want to check out the latest in the Go West "Easy Outings" series.

Tonka, the Great Horned Owl, at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center. Photo courtesy of the Willowbrook Wildlife Center.Name: Willowbrook Wildlife Center, an education center and a wildlife rehabilitation center operated by the DuPage County Forest Preserve. The animals cared for there are native to DuPage County, or migrate to or through DuPage County. Once the animals recover, the center releases them back into the wild, if possible.

Location: It occupies a 50-acre preserve at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn, across the street from the College of DuPage.

Hours: Open to the public daily, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed holidays.

Admission: Free, but donations are accepted.

Amenities: The Visitor Center, which is near the parking lot, contains a number of unreleasable animals designated as "educational ambassadors" for their species. It features an area where kids can play with nature-themed games, puppets and puzzles, as well as climb inside a faux "tree trunk" to read books. The Visitor Center also has restrooms. Nearly 40 acres are occupied by a nature trail with forest, prairie, savannah and wetland eco-systems. (The outer loop is a half-mile; the inner loop is shorter.) A number of animals are contained outdoors in large cages. There is a butterfly garden and a pond with fish. The center also features rehabilitation facilities where sick and injured animals are cared for; those are not open to the public, but the center's website does offer several virtual tours.

Food: The center sells no food, but you can bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the tables near the Visitor Center, or in the picnic shelter.

Good For: Beginning walkers will enjoy the animals in the Visitor Center or being pushed in a stroller on the trails. Young children can get an idea of what animals are native to our area, and the challenges they face when injured in the wild or when well-meaning people try to raise them as pets. During our visit, we also saw several couples (without children - gasp!) enjoying the trails as well. It's a nice place to get outside and take a walk.

On the animal trail, where we saw the larger animals. Photo by Tara Burghart.Our Experience: The Willowbrook Wildlife Center has been on our list to check out for a while now, and my preschooler and I finally made the trip on a cool day this spring.

We started off in the Visitor Center, and I highly recommend you do the same. A volunteer gave us an indoor tour, telling us about a variety of birds, reptiles and amphibians that are on display. They are unable to be released into the wild because of behavioral or physical disabilities. We were also able to peek through a large window at the kitchen, where food is prepared for sometimes as many as 200-plus animals each day. (Yikes! And I get annoyed having to clean up the kitchen after feeding a family of three.) 

The volunteer also helped orient us to the outdoor space, telling us about a few animals to especially keep a look out for. Strolling through the animal trail, we saw eagles, hawks, groundhogs, raccoons, owls, turkey vultures, a red fox and more. I was most impressed by the bobcat. Who knew the DuPage County had bobcats? We also took a walk down the nature trail to check out the sandhill crane exhibit, and got to see an owl and a falcon up close -- both were being held by glove-wearing volunteers.

I really wasn't sure what to expect at Willowbrook Wildife Center, but my daughter and I really enjoyed our visit, and will certainly return again soon. And if I ever find an injured animal, I will now know where to call: 630-942-6200. This page on the center's website also gives detailed instructions on what to do if you find a wild animal injured or abandoned.

The Takeaway: I was reading some reviews of Willowbrook online and a number of comments talked about how it's a good place for people who love animals but don't like zoos because they object to them being caged up. At Willowbrook, you know these animals are being well cared for and in the best cases, rehabilitated so that they can return to the wild. According to the forest preserve, each year staff and volunteers care for thousands of animals brought to Willowbrook.

Willowbrook offers a number of educational programs each year, many aimed at classes or groups like Boy Scouts. It also offers some events -- the drop-in ones are most always included on the Go West Calendar. 

If you are planning a visit with your family this summer, you can check out the "Wish List" of items that Willowbrook uses and needs on a regular basis. It also is participating in the "Passport to Adventure" program, and the center has a good Facebook page where it shares interesting videos, photos, facts and news.

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