CHICAGO––Urban wildlife habitat conservation is often traced to the 1914 creation of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Foresighted planning left Chicago and surrounding suburbs a protected greenbelt and wildlife migration corridors that today hosts an abundance of animals of most species common to the Midwest.
Unlike in Milwaukee, however, an hour’s drive or train ride to the north, the major Chicago-area humane societies and animal control agencies have yet to become deeply involved with wildlife.
Focusing on dogs and cats is still enough to keep them busy. Yet this means ceding the primary role in responding to public concerns about wildlife to other institutions, whose focal message is not be kind to animals, of all species, and whose agendas are often at odds with humane concerns.
Influences of Bergh & Olmsted
Henry Bergh, who founded the American SPCA in New York City in 1866, also inspired through correspondence the 1879 formation of the Wisconsin Humane Society. The only known statute of Bergh stands in front of the Wisconsin Humane shelter.
A Bergh contemporary and fellow New Yorker, landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted (1822-1903), as profoundly influenced Chicago, with significant benefits for animals, but unlike Bergh, Olmsted did not actually have animals in mind. Though animal habitat was a component of Olmsted s vision, he seems not to have thought much if at all about how the animals dwelling in the parks he designed might be treated, especially if their behavior became problematic.
Best known for directing the conversion of outmoded market squares into Central Park in New York City, Olmsted later designed the Riverside subdivision in Chicago, and the Emerald Necklace park chain ringing Boston. His last great project was the layout for the 1893 Chicago World s Fair.
Olmsted’s early career emphasized reintroducing naturalistic green spaces to densely populated urban areas, but he became increasingly interested in protecting habitat close to cities against urban encroachment. He theorized that urban development could jump over greenbelts instead of overrunning them.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was the first serious test of the greenbelt approach. The six-forest system dividing the inner and outer Chicago suburbs began to take shape with the 1916 purchase of the 500-acre Deer Grove Pasture, for the then steep price of $700 an acre.
A year later the district bought the facilities now known as the Harold Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum. Built in 1874, the site had already served for seven years as a finishing school for wealthy young women, and then for 36 years as a home for troubled young men.
At a time when many humane societies ran orphanages, before they opened shelters for animals, the home might have evolved into an animal protection organization, as others did but animal care was introduced only after the building served for 14 years as the Forest Preserve District headquarters. In 1931 it finally became the Trailside nature museum, recognized as the first such facility in the Midwest and probably also be the first Chicago-area wildlife rehabilitation center.
River Trail Nature Center
The Forest Preserve District later added the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, which is today a quiet mini-zoo of injured raptors, fox, coyotes, and other rescued animals who are not believed to be capable of surviving if released. River Trail has in the past been criticized by both animal rights activists and conservationists for keeping captive live animals even well-habituated to visitors whom some have believed should be euthanized rather than exhibited. The animal rights argument was that the animals are allegedly exploited. The conservation argument was that keeping them amounts to investing heavily in animals who may never mate and raise young. Neither argument seems to be much voiced lately, after explosions in the early 1990s, but other controversies involving the greenbelts and nature centers have flared among animal advocates.
One is the long-running battle between opponents of culling deer and forest preserve managers who believe that deer overpopulation is destroying habitat for other species. Opposition to using rocket-thrown nets to catch entire deer herds at once, and use of captive bolt guns to kill the netted deer, helped drive the growth of SHARK, founded by Steve Hindi in 1992 as the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition. SHARK has more recently led protest against sharpshooters tactics and has used experience gained in surveillance of Cook County Forest Preserve deer culls to help fight culls in Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Purges of non-native species from the Cook County Forest Preserves, led by The Nature Conservancy, were a focal issue in the late 1990s for Chicago-area wildlife rehabilitator Davida Terry and her organization Voice for Wildlife, no longer active.
Private initiatives also contributed to the preservation of green space and the growth of nature centers around Chicago. Perhaps the most notable example is The Grove, the 124-acre family homestead beside the Milwaukee Road maintained by horticulturalist Dr. John Kennicott and descendants from 1836 to 1976.
The bur oaks and shagbark hickory for which Kennicot named The Grove still stand, shading and sheltering abundant wildlife but The Grove has long been linked more to killing in the name of conservation than to respect for animals lives.
Kennicott’s son, naturalist Robert Kennicott, identified the rare Kirtland’s snake at The Grove. He named the snake for his mentor, Cleveland natural scientist Jared Kirtland. Kirtland introduced him to a brief but prolific career in killing wildlife to serve science and education.
Before his untimely death in May 1866 at age 30, recalled Liz Pensoneau in a 2001 history of The Grove, Robert founded the Chicago Academy of Sciences, made the original collections for a museum at Northwestern University, and contributed extensive collections to the Smithsonian Institution. He also made three exploratory trips to Canada and Alaska, sending unusual specimens to the Smithsonian. His explorations were instrumental, Pensoneau wrote, in the U.S. purchase of Alaska.
Later, Louise Redfield Peattie, who lived at The Grove as a child, and her husband Donald Culross Peattie contributed to the fame of The Grove and the growth of the U.S. conservation movement with their books American Acres (1936) and A Prairie Grove (1938). The Peatties helped to introduce ideas about tallgrass prairie restoration that have influenced Midwestern conservationists ever since but at the time, in the Dustbowl years, regenerating plant cover to hold topsoil, rather than protecting even endangered wildlife, was the first concern of most ecologists.
Frog & Fern Ladies
The Grove was at risk of being sold for development by 1973, when a local activist group calling themselves the Frog & Fern Ladies rallied to save it. The Glenview Park District bought The Grove in 1976.
A National Historic Landmark, The Grove today features an extensive network of boardwalks through wetlands, plus a wildlife center exhibiting tanks of catfish, gar, turtles, and a variety of snakes, some of whom are reared for release into suitable wild habitat.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Chicago Wilderness Inc. have worked since 1999 to purge non-native species from The Grove, including European buckthorn, among the most cursed invasive plants in North America. Ironically, Dr. John Kennicott reputedly introduced European buckthorn to the Midwest.
(See also “Undercover video calls into question both how deer are culled and why,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-1hq.)
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