CRYSTAL LAKE, IL — A local animal shelter that takes in exotic pets will soon open its education building, with plans to host community events, including an animal snack time, in the future.

Lost Woods Nature Sanctuary, which is located off Route 176 near the Fox River in Burtons Bridge, has been open for more than a year. During that time, the nature center, which is run by Mary Pat and Cat Collins, has taken in dozens of unwanted animals, including several guinea pigs, hedgehogs, bearded lizards, turtles and rats.

A renovated 2,000-square-foot pole barn has been transformed into the animal shelter’s education building, Collins told Patch. Collins lives on the property and her home and the education building are located the 6.14-acre property, which also has two pastures.

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“We are hoping someday to have some rescue goats in the barn and pasture but that will probably be years from now,” she told Patch in an email earlier this month.

Lost Woods plans to host an open house at the education building from 1 to 5 p.m. on March 26. Lost Woods is taking appointments for those wanting to host events in building, located at 2025 Louise Street, Collins said.

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The new education building has a small kitchen where volunteers can prepare food for the animals and do animal feeding demonstrations and videos, Collins said. The building has a bathroom (for humans) and six rainbow-colored bunny runs, a large guinea pig townhouse and five guinea pig pens.

Collins said Lost Woods plans to host a lot of free events where people of all ages can come and check out the animals currently being housed at the shelter, which changes regularly. An “animal snack time” would let those stopping out feed prepared snacks to the animals, which will give them a chance to get closer to and meet the rescue pets.

The animal sanctuary may, at any time, have rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, chinchillas, hamsters, ferret, lizards, hedgehogs, turtles and small snakes but no dogs, cats or birds, Collins said.

“The variety of animals will vary each time you visit as we are at our root an animal shelter so they will be coming in as rescues, getting vetted and rehabbed as necessary, and getting adopted out,” Collins said. “So you might meet your new best friend when visiting Lost Woods, as many of our animals will be adoptable.”

Those interested in setting up a private event at Lost Woods can email the organization at

Pat and Collins came up with the idea for Lost Woods while working together at Wildwood Nature Center in Park Ridge. Collins, who received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from DePaul and graduate certificate in non-profit management from North Park University, said people would bring in guinea pigs and small exotic pets to the nature center, looking for a place where the animals could be cared for.

But such services are few and far between, she said.

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“And we just realized there really needs to be a shelter for small exotic pets,” Collins said. “There are a lot of places for dogs or cats but there are not a lot of places where you can take a guinea pig or a mouse or a turtle.”

Colins said a lot of these animals, especially guinea pigs, were purchased for children during COVID. Parents learned over time the animals, which they thought would be simple to care for, were more work than expected, Collins said.

“It was a trend,” Collins said. “And guinea pigs can be pretty high maintenance.”

So, Collins — who also works part-time as a veterinary assistant — and Pat — who majored in early childhood education in college — decided to combine their expertise to create Lost Woods, which aims to make sure small exotic pets find homes where they will be wanted and also to educate the public, especially children, about these animals.

In addition, Collins receives perks from her vet job that allow for discounts for medical care and testing, which Lost Woods also handles for the animals that are brought in. Lost Woods is located on a property off of Route 176 and near the Fox River that has a farmhouse and woodshed, which was formerly owned by a carpenter, Collins said.

Collins also owns some pet bugs, which you may have met if you stopped out to the popular Farmers Market + At the Dole. Lost Woods had a booth and Collins brought her Madagascar hissing cockroach, which she let visitors to her booth hold, as well as American millipedes. She couldn’t bring the “peppered roaches,” she said, because those can fly.

All the bugs were brought in by Collins after she worked for the Field Museum’s Fantastic Bug Encounter exhibit and will be used in the future for educational purposes.

Lost Woods aims to keep adoption fees low, Collins said, and you can check out what is available for adoption on the non-profit’s website. Most of the animals brought in are from owner relinquishments but Lost Woods also has taken in some stray hamsters or guinea pigs found wandering around as well as several hamsters that were dumped in an alley.

“We have definitely had some adventures in this first year,” Collins said.

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