The unexpected guest

Snowy owl tests the capacity of TreeHouse Wildlife Center and Rehab Manager Rachael Heaton

By Ted Cox

Climate change is bringing new animals to Illinois, but TreeHouse Wildlife Center never expected that it might have to play host to a snowy owl.

Located in Dow, just inland between the Mississippi River towns of Alton and Grafton, TreeHouse came up with a snowy owl over the winter when its founder Adele Moore spotted the bird unable to fly. After a messy and acrobatic rescue — "She had to chase it across a farm field and then ended up in a drainage ditch to get it," said Rehabilitation Manager Rachael Heaton — the owl was brought in, only to be found to already have had a separated elbow, which had healed in a way that made it incapable of flight.

Usually, the birds TreeHouse finds and rehabilitates are treated and gradually nursed back to full health in a 100-foot flight cage in a process that takes a couple of months. But birds that can’t be released to the wild, as well as other animals incapable of fending for themselves, are kept or sent to other wildlife centers.

Snowy owls, however, pose their own problems.

Chicago bird lovers were charmed this winter when snowy owls turned up along the Lake Michigan shoreline. According to Heaton, a “snowy-owl explosion” in population had combined with climate change to drive the birds farther south than usual, as far as Texas. Meanwhile, she added, animals like armadillos and American white pelicans are heading north to suddenly warmer climes.

TreeHouse is ready for those species, with Heaton calling armadillos “an interesting critter to have,” and adding, “We’re expecting that to be more common.” Pelicans too quickly adapt to the center, and do a happy dance when anyone appears to be coming up to the them with fish. TreeHouse has other owls, including a barn owl and a great horned owl that are said to be partially “human imprinted,” meaning they’ve been raised around humans and think themselves more human than bird. They can’t be released to the wild, but those two birds serve as foster parents to young owls brought in to the center, which then can be released when they’ve grown.

 The snowy owl, though, would have trouble surviving the hot Midwest summer in the outdoor enclosure where it’s being kept. According to Heaton, “after much discussion we did decide it would be best to rehome the snowy owl somewhere north, as it would be a big undertaking to get its enclosure built and we have so many other projects we're still trying to complete. It's sad because he is supercool but we have to decide what is best for him and for us.”

For now, they're holding on to him. "We have had lots of inquiries from all over the country about the owl," Heaton added in an email this week, "but so far we have not found a facility that we feel is suitable for this snowy. Our hopes are to find a facility up north somewhere that has the proper climate for a snowy owl or for a facility that has temperature-controlled habitats so the snowy doesn't get too hot in the summer. We're also looking for a facility that can offer the bird a natural enclosure where it is free to roam."

Vision problems keep this barred owl from being released back into the wild. It's a permanent resident at TreeHouse Wildlife Center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Vision problems keep this barred owl from being released back into the wild. It's a permanent resident at TreeHouse Wildlife Center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

There's no doubt, though, that the owl is in good company at TreeHouse. The brainchild of University of Illinois veterinarian graduates Adele Moore and Richard Evans, it was founded in 1979, with the first enclosure being a repurposed treehouse previously occupied by Moore’s nephew. TreeHouse moved into the former three-family, 5,400-square-foot compound it now occupies in Dow in 2010, where it now has 10 enclosures, and as of March it had 40 permanent residents — including owls, bald eagles, turkey vultures, pelicans, coyotes, foxes, and other species — along with 50 patients being nursed to return to the wild.

TreeHouse is one of many Illinois animal-rehab centers, designed to care for injured wild animals. According to Heaton they serve a critical role.

“Wildlife rehab centers are the first line of defense in diseases coming in with the animals,” she said. “A lot of the time, when diseases are coming into the area, wildlife rehab centers are the first to see it. It’s very important that we work closely with the health department … so we can let them know what diseases we’re seeing.”

For instance, a raccoon that looks “drunk” or like a “zombie,” Heaton said, is most likely not rabid but suffering from distemper, a disease dogs and cats are typically inoculated against. On the other hand, bobcats have recently turned up suffering vision problems and seizures in an ailment that has sometimes proved fatal — and mysterious. “We’re not quite sure what’s causing that problem yet,” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll be treatable.”

The area is seeing more bald eagles up and down the Mississippi, with their revival since the banning of DDT, and Heaton said they’re sometimes brought in after a collision with a power line, although more common is to find them suffering from lead poisoning.

According to Heaton, hunters will field dress a killed deer and leave the gut piles behind. Eagles typically will find that carrion and eat it, but if the deer has been killed with lead shot that creates problems. The same goes for fish that might have ingested lead hooks or sinkers. Fortunately, she said, that can usually be treated with substances that help remove the lead from the bird’s system.

While sympathetic — Heaton granted that a deer carcass is hard to carry through the woods even after being field dressed — she advised that hunters and anglers pay the extra cost to avoid lead shot, hooks, and sinkers whenever possible.

Just that day as she was interviewed by One Illinois, a TreeHouse worker had spotted a deer carcass on the roadside a few miles from the center. He piled it into the trunk of his car and brought it in, ultimately to be fed to the animals under the center’s care.

“That’ll feed birds for a long time,” Heaton. said. “There’s a lot of meat there.”

Heaton said she’s been obsessed with animals since she was a child, when she could always be seen toting some sort of stuffed animal around. The Collinsville native attended Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville before finding her way to TreeHouse six years ago.

“Saving animals is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” she said. “So when I found out about it, it was ideal.” She’s since made a couple of sabbatical trips to South Africa to deal with even more exotic animals, but she remains devoted to those at TreeHouse, and one can see why.


"Saving animals is all I've ever wanted to do."

Rachael Heaton of TreeHouse Wildlife Center

 On a recent tour of the center, Heaton was greeted by dancing pelicans — under the mistaken impression she was bringing them fish — bald eagles and coyotes and foxes, all in separate enclosures. “Want to hear the coyotes howl?” Heaton said, and, placing her hands to her mouth and working through the remnants of a cold that had threatened her speaking voice in previous days, she made a high-pitched yowl that soon had the coyotes tipping their heads straight up and responding. 

Heaton pointed out that the turkey vultures are the only captives to get visits from kinfolk in the wild. They’ll hang out in the trees above their enclosure. She dismissed the popular notion that such animals might not be worth saving.

“As a rehab center, and most rehab centers are this way, we don’t discriminate between the animals,” Heaton said. “To us, all animals are important. If we can take care of them, we will do so.”

Turkey vultures, she pointed out, “eat dead things. Without vultures, there would be roadkill all over the place, because they will come down and clear that up. It’s an important ecological job.”

Likewise, coyotes “eat a lot of rodents,” and Heaton was particularly protective of opossums.

“Opossums are very important, very interesting animals,” she said. They’re not rodents but marsupials, she pointed out, and actually eat rodents, as well as venomous snakes (they’re immune to the poison) and ticks (they’re immune to Lyme disease as well). “I’ve heard they can eat a few thousand ticks in a season,” she added.

Heaton is willing to grant she has what she considers a dream job, but she emphasized that it’s a job and a duty, and that TreeHouse — while open to visitors daily at 23956 Green Acres Road In Dow — is not a pound, much less a petting zoo. It’s filling an essential role in treating wild animals and getting them back to their natural habitats whenever possible.

“Wildlife rehab centers are here as a service,” Heaton said. One of the TreeHouse mottoes, she noted, is: “You can take the animal out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the animal.” She advised that anyone finding an injured or infant wild animal should call the local police or the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “and they can refer you to the closest wildlife rehabber.”