Wildlife facility is a center of attention
By Long Hwa-shu For Sun-Times Media October 20, 2013 5:08PM
Zachery Conn, 10, peers around the corner at Flora the iguana before deciding to pet him. Handler Stephanie Cappicello explains the nature of the timid creatures to the youngster. | TINA JOHANSSON~FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Updated: November 22, 2013 6:24AM
Unafraid and smiling happily, 3-year-old Alexis Sannes rode on the back of a 250-pound American alligator called Bubba as it crawled around to the cheers of spectators Saturday at the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest.
“She is not afraid of any animal,” said Esperansa Herrera, her nanny, amid a flurry of popping camera lights.
Bubba was the star attraction at Croctoberfest, which guaranteed a “snapping good time” for the several hundred people, many coming with their kids, at the fest.
“This is a hidden gem,” said Robert Carmichael, curator of the center, rated as a first-class facility of its kind with a collection of 150 animals including snakes, crocodiles, alligators, turtles, iguanas, owls, a red-tailed hawk, several laughing kookaburras, and a bobcat named Boris. Interestingly, the center is part of the Lake Forest Department of Parks and Recreation.
For Carmichael, it is a dream come true. He was fascinated with reptiles, he said, since he was 4 years old and had always dreamed of having his own zoo. Under his stewardship, the center, ever expanding since it was started by him in 1997, has become an award-winning institution. Reputed as a living natural-history museum, it has spearheaded numerous conservations and research efforts to save endangered species.
But outside of Lake Forest, few people seem to know of its existence, although it is open to the public and sponsors various field trips and educational programs. It hosts a Reptile Rampage every spring, a show that last year attracted more than 2,000 people from across the country. The center is located on the former Elawa Farm off Waukegan Road and north of Deerpath Road. It is adjacent to the 670-acre Middlefork Savanna.
Maverick Cheng of Winthrop Harbor said he found the place by accident and liked it so much that he brought his wife Sara and their two young children, Nolan, 5, and Nadia, 2, to the fest.
“It’s lots of fun here. I wish there were more places like this,” he said as he held his son for a closeup look at a chameleon in a glass cage thick with leafy plants.
“It’s supposed to change color,” he said of the chameleon, sedate in its emerald green color and apparently ignoring the visitors.
Visitors were allowed to touch some of the reptiles, including a friendly Rhinoceros Iguana. Many tried their hands at the iguana and savored the brief experience.
“It’s delicate to the touch. The skin feels dry and a little rough,” said Elizabeth Rovegno, 12, who came with her mother, Kathy, from Des Plaines.
“With Halloween coming, we wanted to do something spooky,” she added. Her mother said they learned about the fest by watching Channel 9.
Aynsley Rutledge came with his children, Ronan and Rylan. Their eyes lit up when they saw a leaf-tailed Gecko. Aynsley said the kids wanted to see the bobcat.
But Boris the bobcat was apparently taking a siesta when eager visitors came calling. Carmichael said plans were under way to build him a larger quarters complete with a pond and tall grass to duplicate his natural habitat.
Not to disappoint visitors, Carmichael, the curator, showed Bruno, the 250-pound alligator snapping turtle, kept in an indoor pool. He lifted Bruno from under the water with ease without so much of a splash. And the turtle opened his mouth, fearsome with sharp teeth.
“He’ll bite your arm off,” he cautioned. Bruno, however, preferred a chicken and a cantaloupe for dinner, according to his caretaker.
Watching Bruno were Robert Brown, his wife Kelly and their two children, Reed, 5, and Shannon, 2. The children were in awe.
“With the center here, we don’t have to go to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago any more,” said the mother succinctly.