A Wildly Popular Program

By Rob Carmichael

Nestled on a rare oak savanna amid a residential neighborhood and park sits one of the most unique nature centers in the Midwest. Founded in 1996, the Wildlife Discovery Center (WDC) falls under the umbrella of the Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Department in Illinois. For communities looking for ways to bring in more revenue, participation, donors, and positive public relations (PR), a nature center is an opportunity to reach the population in the community that doesn’t typically participate in more organized activities. These non-traditional participants can be captured by providing opportunities for outdoor education, adventure-based activities, and environmental stewardship. In the case of the WDC, it has provided the community with a unique facility that the public can visit and learn more about the environment, conservation, and stewardship.

The WDC is a hybrid of a traditional nature center and a zoo. As a nature center, the facility provides opportunities to learn about the local environment and features indoor and outdoor displays, an outdoor trail with interpretive signage to teach people about the local wildlife, and programs that focus on the native habitat. The WDC also hosts outreach programs to teach people about native animals in the area. As a zoo, the facility features exhibits of live animals from all over the world. The mission of the WDC is quite broad; by taking a global approach towards conservation, the center can teach people that what they do in their own backyards has global implications.

Starting Small
After I dusted off an old thesis on starting up a nature center, I learned that the WDC began very modestly, taking up a 20-foot by 15-foot fitness room. I then submitted it to the park board. With the endorsement of the former director, Fred Jackson, a convincing argument was made to start a new program involving nature and environmental education. The board loved the idea, so I got to work immediately. Eventually, due to rapid growth, this space became too small. Several significant donors came on board, and in 2003 the WDC moved to Elawa Farm, where it has several thousand square feet of indoor space plus 15 acres outdoors. This city-owned property is adjacent to the 1,000-acre Middlefork Savanna, owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

The WDC evolved from a single class called the “Zookeeper Program” that fell under the responsibility of the Program Supervisor of Athletics (another one of my “titles”). There were no funds to start this program, so I pursued and received a grant from the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Chicago Herpetological Society for $500 to purchase some cages and equipment. A few animals were kept in cages, and the Zookeeper Program gave children in grades 4 through 8 the opportunity to learn how to take care of the animals. This was a fee-based program and is still one of the most popular to date.  However, the best revenue-generating programs this nature center discovered were special events, birthday parties, and summer camps. These make up nearly 80 percent of overall program fees. Nearly 20 years later, the nature center has grown into one of the region’s hidden treasures and continues to reach new audiences. More than 20,000 people visit the WDC annually, and the outreach programs reach an additional 30,000 people. 

Money Matters
As is the case for most nature centers that feature live animals, funding and staying on budget are always a challenge. Although special events, camps, outreach and group programs bring in substantial revenue, nearly 60 percent of it comes from private donors, corporate sponsors, and grants. Tax dollars only make up approximately 3.5 percent of the overall operating budget. The importance of networking, forming strong community ties, and being willing to get involved with many outreach opportunities cannot be stressed enough.  

Facilities that maintain a diverse collection of animals typically have expenses such as food, husbandry supplies, equipment, and veterinary costs. The WDC is no exception as its monthly food bill often surpasses $2,500. A number of donors and innovative programs keep these costs to a minimum. The WDC also utilizes area veterinarians to ensure a healthy collection. By contracting out this part of the operation, costs can be budgeted far more effectively. An average exhibit may cost between $5,000 and 20,000, including the cage, furnishings, environmental controls, and special features. A typical nature center will have a fairly basic setup for an animal, as the primary purpose is to interpret the environment.

The WDC features 50 indoor and outdoor exhibits with a variety of reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals. Visitors can see local wildlife such as birds of prey, a bobcat, and a 250-pound Alligator Snapping Turtle, as well as exotic species such as a saltwater crocodile, alligators, giant lizards, and giant pythons. Staff members include recent college graduates, high school and college students, and college interns. Opportunities are provided for older adults to get involved as well.

Nothing Normal About It
A visit to the WDC is anything but “typical.” People can expect to see a bobcat devour a dead rat, a feeding demonstration with crocodiles and alligators, or one of the giant lizards being walked on a leash on the zoo grounds. The animal-keeper staff members wear many hats and also serve as tour guides, so they stay very busy, but this helps build a strong bond with the community and visitors. As a result of the thousands of people coming through the doors and walking the trails, other programs have benefited by generating more revenue. Cross marketing is an integral part of the center’s success. The WDC has received countless testimonials about how the programs are life-changing experiences. The amount of positive PR generated from these personal encounters with wildlife leaves a lasting impression on visitors. It is the hope of the WDC that people return with friends and family members. 

If you are not ready for a nature center, you might contact nearby nature centers to see if they want to establish some programs at your facility. Or, consider partnering with a nearby community to pool resources and facilities. Today, when people of all ages are so disconnected from nature, it’s imperative to have unique programs like these to help show a healthier and more enriching way to live. 

Rob Carmichael is the Curator for the Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest, Ill. Reach him at robertcarmichael@comcast.net. For more information, visit www.wildlifediscoverycenter.org.