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Old Christmas Trees Get New Life at Area Wildlife Center

The Willowbrook Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation center for wild animals, uses discarded trees in their animal habitats.

Christmas is over, and it's time to take down the tree. But your dried out holiday decorations could still have gifts to bear if you take them to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.

Starting two days after Christmas, the center began accepting natural trees, wreaths and garlands from Darien residents—and anyone else with greens to give—for use in its wild animal habitats. The city has partnered with the center for Christmas tree disposal for several years.

Though it requires a drive out to Glen Ellyn, the greenery donation process gives families the satisfaction of knowing they've done a good deed by helping out the center's animal tenants.

More than 8,000 sick or injured critters come through the center's doors for rehabilitation each year, said Education Site Manager Sandy Fejt. Nearly 90 animals, including possums, hawks, foxes and owls, are permanently disabled residents, she said.

But whether their stay is long or short, Fejt said the animals need places in their enclosures to hide, perch and play.

"It's a nice opportunity for them to pick up some behaviors that keep them stimulated in captivity," Fejt said.

The creatures enjoy the sensory experience of rubbing against the needles and inhaling the scent, she said. Center staff members will often conceal food for the animals within the branches, leading to a tasty game of hide and seek.

The center's feathered residents use the trees for perching and nesting, making use of needles and twigs as homebuilding materials, Fejt said.

Mammals, on the other hand, become palpably excited when the new plaything drops into their enclosure.

"The raccoons squeal," Fejt said. "It's like they're saying, 'Wow, this is great!' It's really neat to watch them."

Other animals enjoy the seclusion the greenery grants—but visitors benefit by still being able to catch a glimpse of the resting beast through the twigs.

During a typical season, the center gets just fewer than 100 trees, which provide ample material for its habitats. Before hauling decorations to the center, donors should clear all decorations from the branches—right down to that last bit of tinsel, Fejt said.

Every piece of greenery brought to the center will be used one way or another. Fejt said if something doesn't find its way into a habitat, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, which runs the center, will grind it up for mulch or use it to create fish cribs in local lakes and ponds.

Dan Jones, assistant manager of site operations for the eastern division of the forest preserve, said his crew, along with a team of Boy Scouts, tie used Christmas trees to pallets. They take the contraptions out to frozen ponds and lakes, set them on the ice, and then when the ice melts, the trees sink, creating a safe haven for vulnerable fish.

"It's a nice, ideal place for the smaller fish to hide from the bigger fish," he said.

The Willowbrook Wildlife Center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn. It's open seven days a week, except for New Year's Day, and will continue accepting greenery until people have no more to give. Fejt said the animals love investigating even the driest and most brittle holiday greens.

"It's pretty fun to watch them," she said. "It's no different than watching little kids at Christmas." 

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