IT'S A WILD, WILD LIFE by Ellen Donker
David Mizejewski reflects on his work as a naturalist
As early as he can remember, David Mizejewski has been drawn to nature and wildlife. He was that kid who spent his childhood outdoors, only coming in when his mother called him for dinner, and avidly reading Ranger Rick, a children’s magazine published by the National Wildlife Federation.
Who could know that his passion for wildlife would lead him to become a familiar face on practically every talk show? Google his name and you’ll see numerous clips of Mizejewski casually chatting up Conan O’Brien, Wendy Williams, Ellen DeGeneres and Al Roker while holding either the most adorable or terrifying critters. He’s also hosted and co-produced several television series including Backyard Habitat on Animal Planet and Pet Talk on Nat Geo WILD. This is all part of his work as a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation, where he’s been employed for the past 20 years.
This past April, Mizejewski and his husband, Justin Wolfe, moved to Maplewood from Washington, D.C. when Wolfe changed jobs. “We discovered Maplewood and instantly fell in love with it.” He says, “I always kind of fantasized about living in…a nice community where you’ve got a lot of character, where there’s uniqueness, where people care about where they live, and everything is well kept. And, obviously, someplace with lots of beautiful trees.”
Having grown up in Middletown, a suburb of Monmouth County, Mizejeweski never expected to move back to New Jersey, but he reflects fondly on the subdivision that raised him. “I got to climb trees, and play hide and seek in the woods with my friends, and catch frogs and, you know, scrape my knees and fall in the mud and catch snakes and bring them home,” he says. Although his parents were “city kids,” they indulged his love of the outdoors.
At Emory University, Mizejewski channeled his interest in wildlife by earning a degree in human and natural ecology with a minor in political science. He thought he might like to work in advocacy and policy until he realized he didn’t enjoy the sometimes adversarial nature of it. Instead, he set his sites on working as a naturalist. A summer job working with kids at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia is where he discovered that he likes to “share my knowledge and my nature geekery with other people.” He says, “I realized, this is what I want to do…this is where I can best help. I can be an educator, I can be an interpreter of the natural world, and that’s what a naturalist is.” The nature center is also where he first received formal training handling live animal ambassadors for education programs.
Certainly, Mizejewski has enjoyed a varied career with the NWF and appreciates having been able to travel extensively doing what he loves: using his knowledge and his enthusiasm to help others understand and protect wildlife. But now that the pandemic has curtailed his travel, in between Zoom calls he has enjoyed planning how he’d like to transform his back yard into a natural habitat, a task for which he is uniquely qualified.
After all, when he was hired at the NWF in 2000 it was to run their Garden for Wildlife national program, which focuses on encouraging people to use native plants in their back yards to help support wildlife. This led to a partnership with Home Depot, for which he wrote Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife in 2004 (which was expanded and reissued in 2019). Next thing he knew, Animal Planet decided to develop it into a 47-show series called Backyard Habitat, in which yards were made over into natural habitat gardens. Mizejewski starred as the host, traveling all over the country, and so began his career in front of the camera.
To promote the various shows, Mizejewski regularly gave radio and print interviews and served as a monthly fixture on The Today Show for the better part of a decade. He says, “So my job kind of evolved, just doing the Garden for Wildlife stuff to being more of a media personality for the National Wildlife Federation.” This has been a tremendous boost for the nonprofit as all of that is opportunity “to get media impressions and raise brand awareness and get the word out about the good work that we do, in ways that we could never afford to do.”
Since he hasn’t been making media appearances and speaking engagements during the pandemic, Mizejewski has been planning the launch of a new YouTube channel. He says, “Rather than sit around and wait for things to get back to normal for me to get booked on TV shows to deliver these messages, I’m going to start creating my own content.” He appreciates the flexibility he has with his position. “My job has never been boring,” he says. “I’ve always had these opportunities to kind of pivot and do something new and exciting and different.”
And while he can’t do much outdoor gardening during the winter, it’s clear that Mizejewski thrives on caring for his indoor plants and animals, including his dog, Lucky, some beta fish and a salamander. Recently, he has expanded his collection of houseplants, with an entire room devoted to them. He describes his morning routine, “I go downstairs, I pour a cup of coffee, I go into the plant room and I just absorb the humidity and the warm smell. And then I putter around and poke and look and inspect and water and all of that.”
As for that back yard of his, Mizejewski plans having his garden attain status as a certified wildlife habitat, a recognition program that the NWF put into place in 1973. To qualify, it needs to have four components: natural sources of food, water, cover and places to raise young. He says, “So broad brushstroke, I’m going to be adding a lot more native plants, trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, things like that. And…I’m really focused on minimizing the amount of lawn,” noting that lawns don’t really support much in the way of wildlife.
Mizejewski underscores the importance of individual efforts. “We’re in a wildlife extinction crisis. There’s over a million species threatened with extinction globally. Here in the U.S., one-third of wildlife are at an increased risk of extinction in the coming decades.” And while that can seem overwhelming, he adds, “We all have the power to do something locally, right outside our door, by planting a wildlife garden.”
Ellen Donker spent too much time watching videos of David Mizejewski bringing wild animals on talk shows. She enjoyed every minute.