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Willowbrook Wildlife Center Overcrowded As Veterinarians See Surge In Injured Animals

CHICAGO (CBS) -- In a few weeks, it will be baby turtle season. You'll see hatchlings, especially in the suburbs, but some of their turtle moms won't be around.

CBS 2 Morning Insider Lauren Victory takes us inside an extremely busy clinic where the reptiles are recovering.

The Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn is bustling these days. It's so crowded that the visitors' section remains closed. Animal keepers need every inch of space to keep their social distance and to keep up with critters coming in.

"These guys are all orphans," said Dr. Sarah Reich, holding a baby opossum.

In the ICU room, she showed CBS 2 a bird with a gunshot wound and a goose with a cast.

"A car. It broke his leg," said Reich, who is head veterinarian for the wildlife rehab center.

She estimated her crews are caring for 1,000 more patients this summer than this time in 2019. It's harder to make a comparison to 2020, since animals are often hurt on roads, and we humans spent a lot of 2020 out of our cars.

"Literally, we'll move one animal out, another animal takes its place," said Reich, who couldn't pinpoint one particular reason for 2021's influx.

That also doesn't match the trend in the reptile room, where many turtle tubs are empty right now. Normally, 50 to 100 turtles are in recovery at Willowbrook – most having been crushed by cars while migrating to nest. Only about 30 to 40 turtles have come in so far. Are they getting smarter of street crossing?

"The other concern is maybe they are getting hit, and they're just deceased before they even get here; or there is some sort of population decline," said Reich, who isn't in the business of making snap judgements.

If the trend continues next year, DuPage Forest Preserve ecologists may investigate. Right now, the focus is on healing.

"She can't get released until this is actually hard," said Reich, pointing to a damaged shell on a snapping turtle who was hit by a car last month.

A broken shell is a broken bone.

"If they fracture something, think of it as being as painful as a fractured leg for us," the veterinarian said.

Turtle orthopedics often come to rescue. Dr. Reich showed us a painted turtle with a cast on its bottom shell. That turtle also was hit by a car.

"We placed this thermoplastic material over that we can mold to her shell," she explained. "It actually keeps the fracture perfectly stable."

Overcrowding at Willowbrook Wildlife Center may not be a problem for long. DuPage County is proposing to build a bigger animal rehab facility that the public can weigh in on next week.

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