Even outside, with the doors closed, squawking and twittering fills the air. Inside a trio of ducks–a large white one and a pair of mallards–waddles freely around closely packed cages that hold a Noah’s sampling of animals: pigeons, starlings, little raccoons wrestling, baby bunnies huddling together or quietly munching a bit of salad. A house cat sleeps atop a cage full of guinea pigs. Nearby a mother opossum nurses her young. There are sea gulls, chinchillas, a gray fox, a kestrel, finches, a monkey, and tanks of fish. A great horned owl stares unblinkingly in a cage set next to a glass case that holds stuffed birds of prey. There is a distinct odor of animals. There is also a constant stream of humans, most of them parents or grandparents with youngsters in tow.
Trailside Museum sits at the corner of Chicago and Thatcher in River Forest, in part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, in a beige brick Victorian with a Charles Addams tower. The house is well over 100 years old; for the last 50 it has been a haven for injured wild animals and deserted infants too young to make it on their own. When they are healthy or can fend for themselves, they are released back into the wild. Those unable to make it in the wild become permanent guests, living lessons for children. On May 11 Trailside heard from the Cook County Board that it is to be closed down in the next few weeks.
Ray Schwarz is the superintendent of conservation for the Forest Preserve District and the man designated to explain the board’s decision. “We’ve been thinking about [closing Trailside] for the last couple of years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cited us–the floor is wood and needs to be covered with a sanitizable material, the walls need to be sanitizable, the mammals are overcrowded, the ventilation is poor, and so forth.”
The money is there for correcting the problems–several years ago the estate of Helen J. Nehmzow left Trailside $46,481.86–but Schwarz is opposed to rehabbing. “The building is a house. It’s not designed to do what it’s doing. The rooms are small. It’s not a proper facility for what they’re trying to do. The animals are going to four other nature centers that will accept injured wild animals: Sand Ridge near Calumet City, the Red School House in Palos Park, River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook, and Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington.
“We’re not taking the building down,” he says. “It’s got too much historical significance–it was built in 1874. We’re contacting the historic society in the Oak Park-River Forest area, to get their ideas. But there’s a bad odor in the building–even as a historical site, we’re going to have problems with that.”
Schwarz doesn’t think there’s any possibility of using the Nehmzow bequest to put a new building on the same site. “We will sit down with the staff people and look at the feasibility of another building, but not in that location.” County board lawyers are going over the bequest to see if the money can be distributed to the other nature centers.
Jane Morocco is one of numerous area residents who’s distressed and angry at the news. The mother of a two-year-old, with another child on the way, she has been busily passing around petitions to save Trailside. “It’s a hospital for sick or injured animals: baby birds, sick raccoons, anything–you just bring them over to Trailside. The other nature centers are too far away, and they’re not equipped to take care of animals. They’re more educational.”
She met with Ray Schwarz. “He said that it’s not that they don’t have the money to fix up the place. They do, but they have no intention of doing it. The thing that really bothers me about this whole thing is that it never had any help from the Forest Preserve–they’ve always been understaffed. I told him that the other facilities are not equipped [to handle sick animals], and he said, ‘We had a big meeting, and they will be equipped.’ I have this feeling they’re just going to be put to sleep.”
Mary Snodgrass–an outspoken, impassioned, self-described part-time $3.50-per-hour laborer at Trailside–also doubts that there are really new homes awaiting the Trailside orphans, who were scheduled to be moved starting the last week in May. “This is the only nature center that can take all these baby animals and baby birds,” she asserts. The other centers can’t absorb them, she says. “No way! You will find that they have maybe a fox, an owl, a possum. At other places, when I’ve found a baby rabbit and called about it, I’ve been told they’ll just feed it to the owls. I don’t think that’s the education I want my children to know. What does this say–that we are a paper-plate, throw- away, Styrofoam society! We have to learn that animals have an important place in this world, and it is important that children know there is some place that cares for animals.
“A lot of classes come here for field trips. A lot of them are from the inner city–and this might be their only chance to see some of these animals up close. Many of them have not seen a woodchuck, or a wild rabbit, or baby animals. Where are they going to see them? Sure, you can take those kids to the zoo, and you can show them zebras. But I think it’s more important to see something you can relate to–something you might see in your own neighborhood someday–than a camel.”
Virginia Moe, the museum’s naturalist, has worked at Trailside since 1939. Unwell and preoccupied, dozing at her desk or working with the animals, she’s hard for outsiders to talk to. Ray Schwarz says, “Miss Moe can stay there as long as she wants.” Snodgrass says, “She’s 82, and she said if they close Trailside, she’ll go upstairs and die.”
Judy Atwood has been going to Trailside since she was two years old, first with her mother, then with her own children, who are now in college. “There used to be a crow named Cappie who talked. He used to knock on my window and beg for salty crackers. He’d sit on the handlebars of my tricycle. They had a deer named Bambi–I fed him with a bottle. I don’t remember if there was a rabbit named Thumper, but there was a rabbit named John and a skunk named Flower.”
Atwood has also been passing around petitions. “The thing that gets me is that they’ve done it so quietly, and so secretly, and without publicity. [Cook County Board president George] Dunne thinks he can get away with anything. And I wonder what they’ll do with it. It would make a neat schoolhouse and information center, but you wouldn’t get as much out of it without the animals there.
“If you find an injured bird or a baby raccoon, where else are you going to take them? It’s good to know that they’re there and that they know what they’re going to do with them. Are you really going to drive with a bird all the way to Palos Park?” The closest nature center to Trailside is probably the one in Palos Park–a 45-minute drive.
The matter is not going to be quietly dropped. The normally somnolent River Forest board of trustees became indignant after a group of residents, spearheaded by Jane Morocco, made a presentation to them on May 21. The board voted unanimously to have the village’s legal counsel send a letter to George Dunne, requesting that the order to close Trailside be rescinded. They are also looking into who’s in charge of the Nehmzow bequest.
No one denies that there are problems with the status quo at Trailside. Judy Atwood would like to see a drive among local residents to donate time and money to “bring it up to specs.” Jane Morocco wants the Nehmzow bequest used for the same purpose. And Mary Snodgrass says, “I just hope, if they have a heart, that they will leave Trailside Museum existing.”
Last Friday Ray Schwarz announced that the animals at Trailside would be given a two-week reprieve and that a public hearing would be scheduled. Those who are concerned about the closing aren’t waiting. They’ve scheduled a noon rally at the museum on Sunday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.