Cosley Zoo has a vibrant history, one that demonstrates its continued dedication to creating connections between people and animals that will inspire lifelong conservation of the natural world.
2.65 acres of land were donated by Paula Jones to the Wheaton Park District. Ms. Jones wanted to save the land from development, and donated it in memory of Harvey Cosley, the previous landowner and a close relative (after whom the zoo is named).
The zoo—then called Cosley Children’s park and Museum—opened on August 17, 1974. On opening day the zoo displayed a handful of domestic farm animals. Within a few short months, the zoo began exhibiting native wildlife. After about two years of operation, the zoo changed its name to Cosley Animal Farm and Museum.
An 1800s barn, was moved from St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Wheaton to the zoo.
Railroad tracks were laid in front of the train station and a retired Burlington railroad caboose was brought in to sit on the tracks.
Federal revenue sharing funds made it possible to enlarge Cosley Zoo by two acres. This area was eventually expanded into habitats for wildlife.
The park built an aviary to house 13 varieties of pheasants as well as ruffed grouse, doves and several other birds. Today, the aviary houses native birds and turtles.
With money coming in from successful fund-raising, the Wheaton Park District organized a support group called The Cosley Foundation to utilize the funds for capital developments. The Cosley Foundation, Inc. is officially recognized as a 501(C)3 not for profit foundation. Since its inception, The Cosley Foundation has consistently raised $130,000 to $150,000 annually. The foundation has sponsored the construction of the Vern Kiebler Learning Center, a 66,000 gallon duck pond, an amphitheater, and exhibits for red foxes, coyotes, raccoons, rabbits, white-tailed deer and raptors.
The Vern Kiebler Learning Center was completed. This $356,000 facility was built to house most of the domestic farm animals, and to provide feed storage areas, hospital and isolation rooms, and office space. It also includes a large indoor area for educational programs and special events. With the construction of the barn in 1987 the zoo could be kept open year-round.
A complete renovation of the wildlife area began, eliminating concrete and wire cages and providing more natural habitats.
As Cosley Animal Farm and Museum grew and changed, the name was no longer an accurate representation of the facility. In conjunction with its 25th anniversary in 1999, the staff and Wheaton Park District board of commissioners decided unanimously to change its name to Cosley Zoo.
Cosley Zoo pursued accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). After completion of a very extensive application process, Cosley Zoo received official accreditation from AZA in March of 2000. Accreditation confirms that Cosley Zoo meets the high standards put forth by this organization. Facilities must re-apply for accreditation every five years.
Cosley Zoo became partners with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in the Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Project. This project was developed to repopulate the Illinois threatened Blanding’s Turtle in DuPage County. The zoo’s primary responsibility is the rearing of turtles for release.
Cosley Zoo zookeeping staff began working with a consultant to establish an operant conditioning training program for the zoo’s animals. Zookeeper staff is now able to perform many animal husbandry tasks during which the animals voluntarily participate in their own care, greatly reducing stress improving safety for both the animals and the keepers.
A large addition to the train station was completed, providing a larger gift shop, additional washrooms, and new concessions.
The Cosley Foundation began a new capital campaign to fund the bobcat exhibit. The campaign was kicked off by a generous donation of $250,000 contributed by Jan Kiebler. The zoo was able to utilize this contribution for a successful matching campaign.
Cosley Zoo became involved in another conservation partnership to benefit the Illinois endangered barn owl. Working with several facilities, Cosley Zoo staff hatched, reared and released these unique and beneficial birds of prey. Partners in this endeavor included the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, City of Itasca’s Springbrook Nature Center, and McHenry County Conservation District.
Cosley Zoo worked with an Eagle Scout candidate to change the caboose from an empty shell to an interactive educational experience. The exhibit “Making Tracks through Illinois” focuses on native habitats and the animals found in them.
The zoo expanded its parking lot from 55 to 80 spaces. To ensure a minimal environmental impact, rain gardens were added and permeable pavers were utilized for the new lot.
Thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Cosley Foundation, Cosley Zoo was able to replace the pig and poultry exhibits that were originally constructed in the mid–1970s. These new exhibits provide updated homes for both the pigs and the chickens and new facilities for the rabbits and an on-site clinic.
A stormwater detention area was created to accommodate any storm water run-off for all future anticipated construction projects at the zoo. The area along the south side of the zoo was cleared and graded to ensure proper drainage, then planted with native plants that help to improve water quality.
The Aviary received a much-needed exterior restoration. These renovations included the construction of new, larger outdoor exhibits and a new roof. Additionally, the outdoor exhibits were enhanced to include ponds, new furniture (including logs, rockwork and branches for perching) and plants for various species of birds to utilize. The aviary was reconfigured to offer three large exhibits, one each for songbirds, game birds and wetland birds.
The amphitheater had been located in the northwest corner of the zoo since its construction in 1997. In 2012, the amphitheater was relocated to the zoo’s front lawn in order to accommodate the space needed to build the bobcat exhibit and make it more accessible for guests. The revamped amphitheater includes additional seating and a larger stage.
Thanks to a very generous private donation, Cosley Zoo was able to create a beautiful butterfly garden on the north side of the zoo. This area contains plants that are ideal for attracting butterflies, a water feature, signage, and a pathway to make the garden more accessible for visitors.
In order to improve the space for the turtles and make working with them more efficient, a new home was completed for the releasable Blanding’s Turtles in the Vern Kiebler Learning Center. This new space provides the environment necessary for Cosley Zoo to rear 75-150 turtles each year. It also features four cameras which provide guests with a live view of the turtles.
The construction of the highly anticipated bobcat exhibit was completed in the fall. The project was funded by the Cosley Foundation, Inc. with the support of a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Capital Museum Grants Program. The exhibit is approximately 1,000 square feet in size and features more than 25 feet of vertical space. Additionally, it includes intricate rockwork containing a heated area, a water feature, plants, and logs suitable for the cats to exercise their natural ability to climb and explore.
In April 2012, Cosley Zoo officially began a FrogWatch USA Chapter and held its first training session. This exciting partnership with AZA’s FrogWatch USA gives the general public an amazing opportunity to participate in important scientific research, while learning about our local amphibian populations and contributing to amphibian and wetland conservation. Through this hands-on citizen science program, and with the help of Cosley Zoo staff, volunteers learn to identify local frog and toad species by their calls during the breeding season. Volunteers then go out in the field to gather data that is added to the FrogWatch USA database. Ongoing analyses of this data have been used to help develop practical strategies for the conservation of frog and toad species throughout the United States. With the creation of the Cosley Zoo Chapter, the future may be a little brighter for amphibians in Illinois.
To complement the exterior renovation of the aviary in 2012, staff completed an interior overhaul of the holding cages in 2013, combining smaller cages into larger, more flexible spaces.
New to the zoo in 2013 was a Nature Play area. Along with natural “play” materials such as logs, rocks and stumps, this new space also features a Little Free Library which was installed by a local Girl Scout Troop.
In 2014, the zoo was able to conduct a complete renovation of the main visitor parking lot from asphalt to permeable pavers. As part of the renovation, the zoo’s parking lot was connected with the neighboring office building lot, providing the zoo with an additional 46 parking spaces for weekend use as well as an accessible sidewalk.
2014 also saw the expansion of the coyote yard and the replacement of the fox perimeter fence with new material. As part of the coyote habitat expansion a new, larger viewing deck was constructed.
Late in 2016 with the support of the Cosley Foundation, the zoo began construction of a new quarantine facility which was completed in 2017. This structure provides two separate quarantine areas, a feed prep kitchen, staff washroom and shower, and lockers for animal care staff.
In 2016 and 2017, Cosley Zoo received Nature Play grants each in the amount of $5,000. The grants were received from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums with the support of the Disney Conservation Fund. The funds were used to add elements to the nature play area, develop a family nature club focused on families with a child or children with special needs, and purchase a portable kiosk which is used to engage with and educate guests.
Early in 2017, both the Wheaton Park District Board of Commissioners and the Cosley Foundation Board formally approved the zoo’s master plan and related strategic plan. These new plans lay out a bold new vision, which will allow the zoo to teach, inspire, advocate for, and entertain the community in new ways, all while preserving the best that Cosley has to offer: an accessible, safe, family-friendly experience.
The zoo made an important acquisition of an additional 1.525 acres of land on the east side of Gary Avenue adjacent to zoo property. This brings the total land available for expansion to 5.1 acres. This land was purchased to facilitate implementation of the zoo’s master plan, providing space for expanded public parking.
During 2017, Cosley Zoo engaged the services of consultants to conduct a Capital Campaign Planning Study.
In January 2018, the zoo once again hired consultants to manage a capital campaign to support implementation of phase I of the master plan. The campaign included the hiring of a local campaign manager. This partnership continued in 2019 as well as 2020 and 2021.
The zoo constructed a Coins for Conservation exhibit to raise awareness and funds in support of three conservation projects. One project is the zoo’s own Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Project, while the remaining spots focus on conservation projects for AZA SAFE species, on a rotating basis.
During 2019 the zoo began to make concerted efforts to ensure that Cosley Zoo can connect all guests to conservation. This began with the zoo initiating its own Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team and becoming certified by KultureCity and Giant Steps to ensure a sensory friendly environment.