Passion to Protect Lake Forest Man Makes Animal Rescue, Education His Business

By Krishnamurthy, Madhu | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Passion to Protect Lake Forest Man Makes Animal Rescue, Education His Business


Krishnamurthy, Madhu, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Madhu Krishnamurthy Daily Herald Staff Writer

It's not uncommon for young boys to be wild about dinosaurs. Yet childhood fascinations seldom turn into lifelong obsessions.

But Lake Forest resident Robert Carmichael has turned his love for lizards and frogs into a career.

Carmichael is the founder, manager and curator of the Lake Forest Wildlife Discovery Center, which houses nearly 100 animals that are mostly abandoned or rescued.

"This has been a lifelong passion every since I was 4 years old," Carmichael said.

As a boy, Carmichael kept a baby alligator for a pet until his parents made him give it up to a zoo. But his passion for reptiles didn't fade. Today he has two boa constrictors, which he raised himself.

Most of the animals at the center are reptiles and amphibians, with some birds of prey. That includes pythons and other venomous snakes, foreign lizards, turtles, and hawks and owls.

"Those are the three areas that we focus on, mostly because we're limited spacewise," Carmichael said. The room that houses these animals is only about 500 square feet large.

The center, at 400 Hastings Road, is part of the city of Lake Forest's parks and recreation department. It has been in operation for about eight years and its sole purpose is to research wildlife and educate people about it. However, there are only two full-time staff members, including Carmichael, to run the programs.

"It's a miracle that we could actually get something like this off the ground," Carmichael said. "I think most communities would not take a chance on something as unique as this program."

However, unlike other city departments, the center's programs are not subsidized by tax dollars but rather sustained by user fees. The only help the city provides is through the use of its Recreation Center facility off Hastings Road.

Money for operations, care for animals and staff salaries has to be paid for by other methods like donations, sponsorships and grants.

"We started off with a real small grant ($1,000) from the Chicago Herpetological Society," Carmichael said. "It was just sort of seed money to buy some cages."

At first, Carmichael had planned to only display native Illinois wildlife at the center. But over the years, he took on a different approach and started rescuing animals and taking in orphaned, abandoned and injured wildlife.

One of his most memorable rescues involved a pregnant snapping turtle who got hit by a car.

"We actually cut open the stomach of the mother and were able to save all the eggs that she was getting ready to lay," Carmichael said.

All 40 of those eggs hatched in an incubator at the wildlife center. Only four of those baby turtles remain at the facility.

"It kind of gave them a new lease on life," Carmichael said.

Over time, he rescued a leopard frog, two American alligators, and an African spur-thigh tortoise who would have perished in the bone-chilling Chicago climate.

Tank the turtle, as he is known, was found roaming in a downtown Chicago parking lot by the John Hancock building. Chicago police called the wildlife center and Carmichael was off to the rescue.

"Someone probably had him as a pet," he said. "People unfortunately get exotic animals as pets and are just not equipped to take care of them. He's going to be huge someday and all they do is eat, sleep, pee and poop."

Tank has been at the facility for four years now. He's just a little bigger than a football, but will eventually grow to more than 200 pounds. Spur-thighs are probably the third largest tortoises on earth.

Some of the center's exotic animals are those seized at airports. Carmichael helps state and federal agencies deal with illegal wildlife trafficking through Illinois.

"Some of them are destined for the pet trade, some for the skin trade, and some for Asian markets where they use certain parts of their bodies," Carmichael said. …

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