Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

A Passion for the Natural World

Rob Carmichael is the founder and curator of the Wildlife Discovery Center in north suburban Lake Forest, home to a remarkable collection of venomous reptiles and other animals.

I started the Wildlife Discovery Center back in 1996 as a way to get kids reconnected to the natural world. The more they learn about these amazing animals and their habitats, the more they appreciate them and the more time they want to spend exploring nature. This is really one of Chicago’s most unusual public attractions. We’re a nature center, zoo, and museum rolled into one. When we opened, we had just two snakes, a lizard, and a turtle. Today we have one of the nation’s largest public collection of rattlesnakes and other venomous reptiles, as well as other animals from all over the world. It’s one of the hidden jewels of our area.

When you walk into our main exhibit room, you’re greeted by a 100-pound alligator snapping turtle. You’ll also see a six-foot Gaboon viper from Africa, the snake with the longest venomous fangs on earth. We have four birds of prey and we even have a kangaroo. Our setting is unique, too, on hundreds of acres of the Middlefork Savanna, with five miles of hiking trails. Many of our animals had been neglected by their owners or may have been injured in the wild and were on the verge of being put down. I wanted to find a way to help these animals, but at the same to use them to teach people about the environment. They help us get the message across about being good stewards of the environment.

I’ve been fascinated by animals, and especially reptiles, ever since I was a little kid. I started with dinosaurs and eventually moved up to the real deal. At Elmhurst, I was an education major and I played baseball, but I also kept up my interest in reptiles. I had a pet iguana in Dinkmeyer Hall. His name was Felix and he was sort of the dorm mascot. He lived in one of the cabinets above the closet. I remember one night I had a date in my room and we were watching TV and having a pizza, and all of a sudden Felix took a flying leap right into the middle of the pizza. My date was out the door pretty fast.

After graduation from Elmhurst I started a master’s degree program in environmental education at George Williams College. One of the big projects in my master’s thesis was about how to start up a conservation education facility. I really had no intention of ever putting it into practice, but a couple years after completing my master’s, an opportunity came up at the Lake Forest parks and recreation department. I was the athletic director there at the time and they had asked the staff for ideas about what they could do with some space that had become available. I had the idea of dusting off the old plan from graduate school for starting up a conservation education facility. I went before the city council and was able to convince them that we had an opportunity to meet a need in the community for more nature programs. Since then, I’ve had a lot of kids go through my program, and now they’re in high school
or college and interested in zoology as a career. It’s kind of neat to see that come full circle. Who would have thought that a graduate project would have turned into a profession for me?

As curator, I do everything from the most mundane administrative tasks to exhibit design to field research. I spend part of my day working with the animals in our collection. With our venomous reptiles, you have to have a very high level of expertise and knowledge of how to deal with them. And since we fund our operations with donations and grant money, year after year, we’re always trying to find new funding sources. But when you have a passion for what you’re doing, you find a way. We have a top-quality collection of animals, animals that tell a special story.

I wanted to take a global look at conservation, so that when you come see our exhibit you’ll see animals not just from our state and our region, but also animals from Australia, Indonesia, South America. This way we can teach kids about not only what’s happening in our own backyards but also what’s happening globally in terms of conservation. We want them to learn about animals and their habitat and to understand how everything is interconnected. I’m about as blessed as can be. I have a job I look forward to going to every day of the week. To have my career be my passion, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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