When Rob Carmichael first started working for the City of Lake Forest, he was running the city’s athletic programs. Coming from a sports background and having played sports in college and a little professionally, it seemed a natural fit.
He would often spend time at the city’s Recreation Center helping out with coaching and eventually started running its athletic leagues. But his true dedication was to animals—and conversations with his boss at the time, the Director of Parks and Recreation for the city—put him on a journey that will end in March.
“I had approached my old boss and friend Fred Jackson and told him my real passion was wildlife education. Lake Forest at the time didn’t have a nature center,” Carmichael says. “Fred’s an outward thinking guy; he was always looking outside the box, always looking at what we could do to make Lake Forest the most special place on earth. So, he told me a nature center was a great idea.”
Jackson told Carmichael to put together a business plan and a program plan and Jackson would go to bat for him. Jackson ended up giving Carmichael a small space at the city’s Recreation Center in the early ‘90s.
“We utilized the old fitness room, which is now a dance studio, and that was basically our home base for a number of years,” Carmichael says. “Quickly I noticed that there was a real need for wildlife and nature education and people were loving it.
Carmichael started hosting classes and getting phone calls to come out to schools and other events. At the time, his collection of animals, which included some snakes, a turtle, and a lizard, was limited to the pets he kept at home.
“I got a $500 grant and that allowed me to get some nicer caging and then all of a sudden things just started to snowball,” he says. “Within a fairly short period of time, we went from reptiles to amphibians, we brought in a couple of birds of prey, including a red-tailed hawk and a great-horned owl. Things just started to really explode from there.”
Around 1999, Carmichael relocated to Elawa Farm. A Farm Commission was established, and a foundation was formed separate from the city to raise money. The Wildlife Discovery Center was born.
“Being a competitive person, I wanted to create the greatest nature center in Illinois, if not the Midwest. I went to a lot of the other nature centers in the area to see what they did,” Carmichael says. “Everyone does things a little bit differently, but all of them have the same sort of feel, which is great. I just wanted to create something a little bit more unique that would celebrate not only native wildlife, but wildlife around the world. That’s kind of what our collection today reflects—a global conservation initiative.”
Carmichael says he also wanted to create a facility where the keepers that work with the animals were interacting with the public. He wanted to establish a connection between the Wildlife Discovery Center and the public and the animals, where everyone felt vested into the process.
“We get a lot of people that come here every weekend; we saw the same families here over and over because they love coming here,” he says. “It’s cool to see multiple generations over the years grow up and now their kids are coming out.”
But alas, as Chaucer said, all good things must come to an end.
Carmichael is riding off into retirement and he and the City of Lake Forest have decided to close the Wildlife Discovery Center, which they will do in March. The Elawa Farm Foundation is entertaining ideas and proposals for future use of the space, and Carmichael is busy rehousing the centers 400-strong animal collection.
“The foundation’s got some great ideas on what they can do with the space, even utilizing some of the outdoor trail and possibly having some farm animals that used to live here,” says Carmichael. “It would be a great opportunity for the farm to still provide a connection with animals.”
The closing of the center comes down to the issue of sustainability. While the City of Lake Forest has provided support for its operation, a number of individual donors have provided a majority of the financial support over the years. Carmichael has regularly worked 90-hour, seven-day work weeks because the center’s budget hasn’t allowed for additional staff.
Put that all together, and the wise move, he says, is to find the animals a new home.
“It’s my passion. I felt the level of ownership and so I was basically doing the job of probably three full-time staff. When I realized that I needed to start looking at my future and retirement we just didn’t have a real good model for sustainability moving forward,” he says. “It was a tough decision. It was not a decision that was made lightly. It was very, very emotional.”
Carmichael’s biggest challenge has been finding new homes for animals. There are transfer permits involved, and he wanted to make sure their new homes will serve them well.
“A lot of these animals are going to other zoos and nature centers and preserves. I’ve got a lot of connections,” he says. “One thing I wanted to make sure first and foremost is that all the animals that are being placed are going to be in a situation that is as good or better than what they have now.”
The animals are emotional for Carmichael. He says he feels like he’s raised them over the long-term. But he’s also excited for his next chapter.
“It’s been a great run. It’s been an amazing experience. I think the public’s gotten something that no other community on the North Shore can experience,” he says. “But you know, sometimes things like this just kind of run their course.”
A number of special events to mark Carmichael’s retirement and years of service to the City of Lake Forest are in the planning stages. For more information, visit cityoflakeforest.com.