Chicago pioneered urban wildlife habitat conservation, but not “be kind to animals”
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:
CHICAGO–Urban wildlife habitat conservation is often traced
to the 1914 creation of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Foresighted planning bequeathed to 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.
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
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
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 descendents 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 North-western 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,” Penson-eau 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 Ameri-can 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.
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
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
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.