By David A. F. Sweet
In a small room once dedicated to fitness machines at Lake Forest Parks & Recreation, the Wildlife Discovery Center (WDC) launched in 1997. Armed with a $500 grant, founder Rob Carmichael bought a handful of cages and procured animals-- such as its first reptile, a rhinoceros iguana named Flora. About a decade later, Parks & Recreation Department head Fred Jackson brought him to Elawa Farm, a 16-acre space with historic buildings once owned by A. Watson Armour.
“This is our resurgence year,” says Rob Carmichael, holding one of the many animals available for viewing at the Wildlife Discovery Center. “He said, ‘We’re thinking of moving you here,’” Carmichael recalled. “I couldn’t believe the space and trails. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Today, Flora is still roaming her cage. But the change from the early days of the Wildlife Discovery Center – which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year under the umbrella of the Lake Forest Parks & Recreation Department – is stunning.
About 85 species of animals are on display, from snakes, dragons, and turtles indoors to bobcats, coyotes, owls, and even a bald eagle outside. On a recent weekday morning, the parking lot at Elawa was jammed. Kids and their parents gazed at animals many had never encountered before.
“This is our resurgence year,” said Carmichael, who serves as curator/director. “We see a lot of families coming out with the kids to see exhibits. You can see the staff and volunteers have a lot more energy now.”
Carmichael – a lifetime Lake Forester whose passion for reptiles was stoked during childhood when his parents encouraged him and his twin brother Chris to start a home zoo – is the only full-time staff member. He is assisted by five part-time staff and a number of volunteers, including several from local colleges. “The staff wears so many hats – zookeeper, tour guide, summer camp director,” Carmichael said. “The cool thing is these kids really grow here.”
Peter Crawford was one. He discovered the WDC in second grade, soon after his family moved to Lake Forest, and got involved with zookeeper classes and summer programs before working there during high school.
“It’s been a pretty important part of my life,” said Crawford, who will be off to the Everglades in Florida this spring to study Burmese pythons. “I loved going there because you interact with animals. Snakes are in people’s hands, and they have us hold them properly and feed them.”
In 2021, several new animals were added to the 300 or so already at the WDC, including a Komodo dragon, an orange-eyed Eurasian eagle owl, and Odie the Otter. “He’s been a big hit,” Carmichael said of the friendly otter. “He’s always active. He follows me on 2-3-mile hikes each day without a leash.”
There are plenty of interesting stories of how the WDC procures its animals. Many are abandoned, and some have been scheduled to be put to sleep before Carmichael intervened. He works closely with local law enforcement authorities. If they go into a house with a search warrant and find an exotic pet without a permit, Carmichael will confiscate it. One time, a high school student bought a venomous puff adder snake and hid it from his parents. When his mother vacuumed under his bed, she knocked the top off the box and fled the room in terror. “I was sent a picture of the five-foot-long puff adder. I said, ‘Oh my God, do not let anyone in there,’” Carmichael said. “I went into the room, and there were piles of clothes everywhere like a typical teenage boy’s room. It took an hour to find this thing and bring him here.”
Even when the animals pass away at the WDC, they have value. When the massive 150-year-old turtle named Bruno died, Carmichael drove him to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where he is permanently on display. Others have been shipped to places as far as Scotland to be featured.
Aside from running the WDC, Carmichael – who lives on the Elawa property and enjoys a roughly 20-foot commute – conducts trips with 5th-to-8th graders to study wildlife, runs summer camps, and helps oversee the zookeeper mentorship program, where youngsters are taught how to take care of the animals. The spirit of philanthropy animates the center, as donors such as Liz Uihlein, The Negaunee Foundation and others help defray the costs of feeding and housing the animals. Their giving was especially appreciated during the pandemic, when the center’s biggest fundraiser, Reptile Rampage, was canceled two years in a row.
The names of the creatures are always entertaining. Two tortoises who will likely weigh 500 pounds apiece at maturity are Goliath and Hercules. Carmichael points to a crocodile. “That’s Pierre,” he said. “Probably the only crocodile in the world named Pierre.”
On one occasion, an entertainment name (as opposed to an entertaining one) wanted to donate a water monitor lizard. Through a mutual acquaintance, Nicolas Cage called up Carmichael early one morning. Carmichael hung up on him twice, thinking it was a crank call. Once he understood it was the famous movie actor, he arranged for the reptile to come to the WDC. The day after the reptile arrived, a Chicago radio show asked Carmichael to walk him down Michigan Avenue. “I can’t believe we agreed to that,” Carmichael said. “A policeman gave him a piece of his hot dog. Then, one day, three tour buses of Nicolas Cage fans came here to look at the lizard.”
The Wildlife Discovery Center is a living museum and biological station at historic Elawa Farm, situated alongside the Middlefork Savanna, a 670-acre wildlife habitat in Lake Forest. The Wildlife Discovery Center is home to approximately 85 species of animals. Regular hours are Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m-4 p.m. It is closed Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. In addition to visiting the resident animals, visitors can enjoy a hike and observe nature on the adjacent Middlefork Trails or visit the Elawa Farm Park.