North suburban man’s life mission is to rescue exotic animals

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A man in the north suburbs is known as Lake Forest’s own Jack Hannah. His name is Rob Carmichael, a man who has made it his life's work to rescue animals most people would never want to go near.

When he commands Cassanova to “come” and “stay,” it sounds like he’s training a dog but it’s actually a seven-foot alligator.

“Before we started training him, he would just chase you all over the place trying to bite whatever he could, ankles, feet,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael was called in to nurse the American alligator back to health after the owner illegally kept him as a pet in horrible conditions.

“He was kept in a small tank for over 20 years of his life and really given inhumane care,” he said.

When he got him, he was just over a foot long, his growth was severely stunted by the tiny tank he was kept in.

Under Carmichael’s care at the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest, Cassanova is back on track and fairly well behaved…well, most days.

“We get I can’t tell you how many calls a week, working with situations involving confiscation of people are keeping endangered species illegally or animals smuggled into the United States,” he said.

Walking around the Wildlife Discovery Center, you’ll find dozens of animals given a new lease on life, thanks to Carmichael. There’s a horned owl that was hit by a car, a red tailed hawk stolen from a nest as a baby and Dorthy, an 18 foot Burmese python.

“She's a handful,” Carmichael said.

Two tanks down, there are a couple of Asian water monitor lizards named Grugg and Gia.

“My office is basically my desk, computer and then wall to wall animals,” Carmichael said.

And he’s not kidding, he has an armadillo and a giant snapping turtle three feet from his desk. But in Carmichael’s world, it just makes sense.

Carmichael’s love of all things scaley, feathered and furry began early.

“We got a turtle, then a tortoise, then a lizard and eventually we started sneaking other things into the house, smuggling them in so my parents wouldn’t know. My poor parents,” he said.

He now passes on his love of animals to kids through the Wildlife Discovery Center using the same animals he rescued.

Over the years he has guided dozens of kids through his zookeeper mentorship program.

“A lot of these kids actually move on to careers in different fields of zoology, so it`s pretty cool,” he said.

And they learn first-hand the highs and lows of working with the rescued animals.

“It’s really gratifying when you can take an animal that was not kept well, nurse them back to health and then see them now, strong and healthy and live a life as long as possible. It’s a great feeling,” he said.

If you want to meet Cassanova, and dozens of crocodiles from all over the world, the Wildlife Discovery Center has their Croctober fest coming up on Sunday October 22.

For more information about Croctober Fest, visit the Wildlife Discovery Center’s website.