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Wildlife rehab is no longer mission
Cook County center shifts to education

Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Brett McNeil

For the first time in more than 60 years, Cook County residents no longer have a one-stop place to take injured or orphaned wildlife, after officials last week quietly ended the wildlife rehab program at the Trailside Museum in River Forest.

The move, which took effect Jan. 1, leaves only two taxpayer-supported wildlife rehabilitation facilities in the Chicago area. And neither of those locations--the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn and the McHenry County Conservation District's Wildlife Resource Center in far northwest suburban Wonder Lake--is meant to serve animals brought in by people who live outside their counties.

People who live in Cook County from now on will be referred to private, state-licensed wildlife rehab specialists, officials said. According to one expert, there are 27 licensed rehabbers in Cook County and 200 across the state. All specialize in caring for different species.

The 75-year-old Trailside Museum, meanwhile, will be converted this year into a full-time nature center.

"We see it as an opportunity to take [Trailside] as a place that's just getting by to one that can be an educational resource for the area and the city of Chicago," said Cook County Forest Preserve District spokesman Steve Mayberry. "This will now be the closest nature center to the city."

But at least one county official is critical of the decision to end wildlife rehab at Trailside and of the way it was made.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri said money for rehab efforts was cut from the forest preserve budget after County Board President John Stroger decided the program was potentially too costly and not a proper part of the Forest Preserve District mission.

"I think it's wrong," said Silvestri, who also is village president of nearby Elmwood Park and had been working with area residents to establish a non-profit group to run Trailside. "If [animal rehab] is not part of the mission, why are golf courses part of the mission?"

Mayberry, though, said the move to cut money for rehab was supported by Trailside staffers and by forest preserve officials, including General Supt. Steven Bylina. Trailside has been without full-time wildlife rehab staff since April 2003, and re-establishing the program would mean additional spending that officials were not willing to make, Mayberry said.

"We don't think it's the best use of district monies to get into the business of a full-time vet or to add more staff," Mayberry said.

Trailside Director Jim Chelsvig said shifting priorities away from rehab was a way to better reach out to the public.

"Education is a more practical use of our resources, and we can serve so many more people that way instead of doing the rehab," he said.

But John Morocco, a River Forest resident and longtime Trailside advocate, blasted the end of wildlife rehab at the facility as a "big-time neglect of a public service."

"They're not providing a service to the wildlife of Cook County," said Morocco, who for more than two years has pushed to turn day-to-day operation of Trailside over to a non-profit group that would manage the property and raise funds to bolster wildlife rehab and education programs.

Silvestri backed a proposal by Morocco's group, the Trailside Wildlife Foundation, but he said there wasn't enough support among elected officials. The proposal remains in limbo, and the decision to transform Trailside into a full-time nature center appears to signal the proposal's fate, Silvestri said.

Morocco, whose wife is a licensed wildlife rehabber, also questioned whether private individuals could handle the volume of broken-winged birds, orphaned baby rabbits and other animals brought to Trailside each year.

"There's no way," he said.

Yet the end of wildlife rehab coincides with a steady six-year decline in the number of animals dropped off at Trailside. According to Chelsvig, that trend reached an all-time low last year when 584 animals were brought to the west suburban facility.

"It's been very minimal," he said.

By comparison, the Willowbrook Wildlife Center took in more than 6,000 animals in 2005 from DuPage County residents, said facility supervisor Sandy Fejt.

Willowbrook operates on an annual budget of more than $800,000, while Trailside has a budget of about $250,000, officials said.

Chelsvig said one reason for the steady decline at Trailside is that in recent years, staffers have urged people not to interfere with animals they find in back yards or elsewhere.

"If it's a baby bird and it can't fly, I'm going to tell you to put it back because you're stealing from its mother," he said.

Still, Chelsvig encouraged county residents with questions about injured or orphaned wildlife or information about private rehabbers to call Trailside at 708-366-6530.

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