Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why and How David Mizejewski Of National Wildlife Federation Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Not everyone will wish you success, and that’s ok. Not everyone we encounter is going to be supportive of us and our work. It might be because of politics, or a competition for limited resources, or maybe it’s because of simple jealousy. Often we won’t know exactly why. I’ve experienced lack of support and even deliberately-placed barriers to my work in the past by colleagues. Don’t let it disempower you. Try to rise above and don’t let it drag you down. Focus on the work and be confident in yourself. There’s likely nothing you can do to change that person’s mind, so expending emotional energy on their negativity is usually fruitless, so expend that energy doing good work that makes a difference instead.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Mizejewski.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, author and television presenter with the National Wildlife Federation. He holds a degree in Human and Natural Ecology from Emory University and is an expert on wildlife and our environment. David is dedicated to using his knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm to help others understand and protect the natural world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I often get asked when I developed my love of wildlife and nature, and the answer is that I was born this way. It really is true! From as far back as I can remember, I was always drawn to animals and the natural world. I describe myself as a lifelong nature geek. You might think I grew up in a family of biologists or outdoors people who did a lot of hiking and camping, but I didn’t. I grew up in a typical American suburb in New Jersey and neither of my parents were particularly outdoorsy. Despite that, they did encourage my sisters and me to play outside, and that experience of getting to explore the outdoors really fed my innate love for nature and my hunger to discover everything I could about it. I spent my free time climbing trees, turning over logs to see what creatures were living under them, searching for fossils and catching frogs and fireflies. I read every book on animals and the natural world I could find and watched every nature TV show and documentary. I’m so lucky to have parents that supported all of this–even though I was constantly covered in mud, breaking out in poison ivy rashes and bringing back all sorts of critters in my pockets. Without those formative experiences and exposure to nature growing up, I don’t know if I’d have become the naturalist and conservationist I am today.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
One of the National Wildlife Federation’s priority initiatives is called Garden for Wildlife and it’s one that I’ve been deeply involved in for over twenty years. It’s an effort we started back in 1973 and is the program I was first hired to manage when I began at the organization. The core idea behind Garden for Wildlife is that we each have a fantastic opportunity to help out wildlife–literally right outside our own doors. While we must protect large areas of wilderness for wildlife, that’s not enough. We must also shift our mindset about coexisting with wildlife in our cities, towns and neighborhoods. These places occupy a massive amount of what was once key wildlife habitat, but our model of development has largely wiped out habitat where people live. And the wildlife are feeling it.
Since 1970, almost a third of the North American bird population has disappeared, with some 3 billion fewer birds here today than just fifty years ago. The monarch butterfly population is plummeting, in some recent years by as much as 90–99 percent. Our wild native bee species, which are critical pollinators, are also declining, notably several bumble bee species, including the once-common rusty-patched bumble bee, which is now listed as endangered. Frogs and other amphibians are disappearing faster than any other group of vertebrate wildlife. The list goes on. In fact, in the United States one third of our wildlife species are at increased risk of extinction in the coming decades, largely due to human activity.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Many kinds of wildlife–birds, butterflies, bees, frogs, foxes, turtles and a whole range of small to medium wildlife–can happily coexist right alongside us if we just give them back some habitat.
Habitat starts with plants–specifically native plants, which are the indigenous species that naturally grow where we live, and with which the local wildlife species co-evolved. Wildlife rely on native plants for natural sources of food, cover and places to raise their young. You literally cannot have healthy wildlife populations without healthy and diverse native plant communities. They are like two pieces of a puzzle. That’s a big reason so many wildlife species are declining: we’ve replaced all the native plant communities with parking lots, stripmalls, highways, giant agricultural fields and lawns. Native plants form the base of the food web and provide habitat for wildlife, so when the plants go, so do the animals.
At the National Wildlife Federation, the vision of our Garden for Wildlife initiative is to revolutionize how we think about our yards and gardens to transform them back into habitat that we can share with birds, butterflies and other wildlife neighbors.
Instead of barren swaths of lawns and a few non-native ornamental plants that support no life, we can nurture beds of native wildflowers to support dozens of pollinator species, from butterflies and bees to moths and hummingbirds. We can plant native trees and shrubs that will provide cover and nesting places for birds, insects, bats and a host of other wildlife. Native plants will provide nectar, pollen, seeds, berries and nuts as a food source to wildlife. We can transform a lawn into nurseries for pollinators by planting caterpillar host plants, leaving last year’s perennial stems or an old log as nesting spots for native bees, and by using fallen leaves where pollinators overwinter as mulch instead of sending them to the landfill. We can provide clean water to thirsty birds with a bath or a garden pond that also supports frogs. We can stop spreading polluting fertilizers and pesticides everywhere, and adopt more natural, organic gardening practices. If we all do these things with whatever space we have available–whether it’s a container garden on an urban patio, a typical suburban backyard, or a larger rural property–it will add up to exponentially more habitat for the birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife.
Garden for Wildlife is something that everyone can participate it and it’s tackling a huge problem through individual actions. One wildlife habitat garden isn’t going to turn the tide of wildlife decline and habitat loss, but when I create one, and you create one, and our neighbors create one, the collective impact of all those spaces is exponentially more habitat for the local wildlife.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As I mentioned, growing up I always felt drawn to animals and wanted to learn as much as I could about them. That learning quickly led to the realization that many wildlife species are in trouble due to our actions, and it lit my passion for wildlife conservation at a young age.
It wasn’t until later, however, that I really began to understand the connection between animals and plants and became passionate about the idea of gardening for wildlife.
In 1993, my senior year of high school, a book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Backyards by Sara Stein was published. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from being a gardener to a wildlife conservationist as she discovered how critically important what gardeners plant is to the local wildlife. I recall reading a short book review in a magazine and being intrigued with the idea that plants can help wildlife. I didn’t quite grasp how though. Shortly after, I happened to spot the book at a local bookstore and picked up a copy. Once I started reading it made perfect sense. It’s really all about ecology–the interconnection of plants and animals and people and our environment. I found it incredibly empowering to think that we each have that opportunity to take an action that help restore the health of the ecosystem we’re a part of, even as a teenager. I’ve been a passionate advocate for planting natives to support wildlife ever since.
Seven years later I came to the National Wildlife Federation and was able to turn that passion into the focus of my career. I’ve so very fortunate to be able to do what I love, and know that it’s making a difference.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I didn’t have one “Aha Moment” that made me decide to devote my career to conservation and the protection of our environment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do from a fairly young age in a very broad, unspecified sense. For me, those kinds of clarity moments have happened when new, unexpected opportunities came my way. A lot of what I’ve been able to accomplish in my career is because I made the choice to jump on those opportunities even when they were scary or challenging.
One of the more notable examples was taking the leap into being a television host and public figure. Never in my wildest imagination would I have guessed that would be something I’d get the opportunity to do, let alone be able to do well.
It started when a book publisher approached the National Wildlife Federation about a short educational guide I’d put together for the Garden for Wildlife program. They wanted to turn it into a full-blown how-to book available in bookstores across the country. I’d never written a book and never thought I would, but I jumped on that opportunity and the first edition of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife was published in 2004. It was a choice that had a huge impact on my career.
A few months later, the TV network Animal Planet developed an entire makeover TV series based on my book and the Garden for Wildlife program called Backyard Habitat–and the next thing I knew I was standing in front of the cameras as a television host. Almost overnight, I went from being a program manager at a non-profit organization to a media personality.
The “Aha Moment” wasn’t just that I was able to pull off writing a book or being on-camera talent, but also the learning that came from getting the opportunity to step outside of the non-profit conservation organization world and into mass media. As a naturalist, I’ve always been a communicator, but instead of small audiences of people who already cared about wildlife and conservation, I had to retrain myself to speak on-camera to millions of people, many of whom didn’t care at all about what I was talking about. That experience was a real trial-by-fire and I learned very quickly that I had to adapt and learn new communication techniques to speak to mass audiences if I was going to be effective. I’m so thankful for that learning opportunity because it was a game-changer and led to many more media opportunities to spread the Garden for Wildlife message.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When the Backyard Habitat TV series launched, Animal Planet coordinated a satellite media tour. A satellite media tour is when you do a series of TV interviews to promote your latest project all around the country. You are staged in a studio in front of a camera with an earpiece in and you are connected into the TV studios one after the other for your interviews.
For this particular satellite media tour, we arranged to have ambassador animals–non-releasable native wildlife that naturalists like myself are trained to handle to educate people about the species and inspire them to get involved in conservation. The animals were the kinds of wildlife that you might see when you create a wildlife habitat garden with native plants, which is what the Backyard Habitat series was all about: a box turtle, a screech owl, a toad and a corn snake.
The satellite media tour took place over several hours so we could do morning show appearances throughout the country, starting on the East Coast all the way across to the West Coast. I used one ambassador animal for a few back-to-back interviews, then switched to the next one, so no one animal was out of its enclosure for too long.
First up was the screech owl (one of my favorite bird species). After a few interviews, the local wildlife rehabilitator and educator who provided the ambassador animals took the owl from me and brought me the corn snake. Just as we were getting ready to go live for the next interview, I felt an added sensation. I looked down and the snake was biting my hand! Corn snakes are very calm, handleable snakes, and I had years of experience working with them, so it was a bit of a surprise. Luckily they aren’t large or venomous–but they do have sharp teeth that broke my skin, and I was bleeding.
Before I could do anything, I heard the satellite media tour producer in my earpiece say, “…and we’re live for our next interview on 3, 2, 1…” and I had to snap to attention and do the interview. There I was trying to deliver a positive message that snakes are beneficial wildlife, that most species are totally harmless to people and that we should be more tolerant of them in our yards–all while one was chewing on my hand with blood dripping down!
Luckily I was able to maneuver my hand so that the blood wasn’t apparent and got through the interview without anyone noticing. As soon as it was over I passed the snake back to the handlers and cleaned and disinfected the bite, which really was little more than the barest scratch. No harm done. But there I was, the naturalist and animal handler who couldn’t even manage to handle one of the most easily-handled snakes species! There was nothing to do but laugh at the situation in the moment
The rest of the interviews went off without a hitch, thankfully, but I really was surprised that such a docile species as a corn snake would bite me, though, especially an individual that was regularly handled. Whenever I work with ambassador animals, following my training, I’m always careful to hold the animal securely but gently and am always watching for any signs of stress or agitation. Up until it bit me, this snake seemed very calm and relaxed. Again, I didn’t even notice it had bitten me at first.
Then the lightbulb went off and I figured it out. It WAS my fault. My best guess is that though I was handling the snake very gently, it want into defense mode because moments before I was handling an owl–a potential snake predator. It’s likely the snake’s flickering tongue picked up the owl’s scent (yes, snakes use their tongue to collect scent particles which are “smelled” by an organ on the roof of their mouth), it mistook me for something trying to eat it, and it bit me defensively.
My lesson learned that day was to really think like an ambassador animal and identify any possible thing that might make that animal uncomfortable when doing an education segment, because it might not be an obvious thing.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My parents for sure deserve much of the credit for my success. They always set high expectations and always supported me in achieving success–whether that was in academics, sports or my hobbies. They sacrificed a lot to give me a good education and a safe, supportive home growing up. To this day, it feels really good to share my accomplishments with them and to know that they are proud of me.
Another significant mentor for me was the National Wildlife Federation’s long-time Chief Naturalist, Craig Tufts. I was so lucky to have overlapped with Craig at the Federation for almost a decade before his passing in 2009 after a valiant battle with brain cancer. He was my predecessor–both in being a naturalist and overseeing the Garden for Wildlife initiative, but also as an author and a TV personality. Craig penned several books about wildlife habitat gardening and observing nature in our neighborhoods and he hosted a birding series on PBS. I literally followed in his footsteps in all of those things.
More than that though, Craig was the best naturalist I’ve ever met. His knowledge of plants and animals was encyclopedic and his understanding of ecology and our role in it was vast. He also had that very rare talent of being able to communicate that knowledge in a way that was very accessible to the average person. Craig was never preachy or pedantic. He was excited, enthusiastic and filled with knowledge. I learned so much just by being in his presence and watching and listening to him, both about nature and about good science communication.
He was also one of the most genuinely nice and caring people I’ve known. He was always positive, always friendly and always willing to help in any situation. Despite his impressive knowledge, he was always humble and always inviting to anyone who wanted to learn more about nature. He was very supportive of me, even though I must have felt like a “young upstart” to him with half his knowledge and skill. Many of us count people like Mr. Rogers or Jim Henson as positive role models and mentors in kindness from afar. Craig had that exact vibe and that impact on me, I was lucky enough to get to know him personally.
Though he’s been gone from us for over a decade, I think about Craig often. I hope I’m doing him proud as I continue in the path he helped set me on as National Wildlife Federation’s naturalist.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
In terms of the main goal of Garden for Wildlife–to restore habitat for wildlife in our cities, towns, and neighborhood, starting right in our own yards and gardens–there are some key things we can each do to address to fix the problem of local-level loss of habitat and threats to wildlife.
- Break Up With Your Lawn — Lawns cover some 40 million acres of land in the U.S. That’s a massive amount of space. We spend time and money constantly watering them, fertilizing them, putting pesticides on them and mowing them every week in an endless cycle. The conventional lawn is needy and resource intensive–and is a barren wasteland when it comes to wildlife habitat. Obsessively tended lawns might look green and lush, but they are essentially dead, supporting little other life. It’s time we ended this toxi, one-way relationship. Stop pouring all of your time and resources into your lawn and let your yard go natural! If you don’t want to get rid of your entire lawn, at least reduce its size by adding some new garden beds filled with native plants. Definitely stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. A lawn that doesn’t use such chemicals quickly becomes a lot more diverse, with lots of small wildflowers and other plants–along with the pollinators and other wildlife that they support–living among the grass stems.
- Keep Your Cat Indoors — Cats are wonderful companions and I’ve been a cat-dad most of my life. But the hard reality is that when we allow domesticated cats to roam freely in nature–whether they are our pets or feral or stray cats–they are no different than many other non-native invasive species that decimate wildlife and erode the diversity of our ecosystems. Outdoor cats take an enormous toll on wildlife, killing as many as 4 billion birds and 20 billion small mammals annually. That kind of pressure on local wildlife populations is unnatural and isn’t sustainable. Cats are a contributing factor to some of the steep wildlife declines I’ve already mentioned. It’s not the cats’ fault, of course. They are just following their natural instinct as hunters. Their negative impact is just another facet of our own, as we are the ones that introduced these predators far and wide around the world where they negatively impact native species. The good news is that there are some easy solutions. First and foremost, keep your cat indoors, which is safer for your cat too since outdoor cats at at risk of getting hit by cars, wounded by fights with other cats, or even becoming a meal themselves for wildlife. Spay and neuter your pets to prevent unwanted litters, and adopt when it’s time for a new pet.
- Speak Up for Wildlife — When it comes to helping wildlife in our yards and in our neighborhoods, one of the most powerful things you can do is use your voice. No, I don’t mean learn animal calls to draw in your local fauna. I mean get politically active locally. Does your town or homeowners association have “weed” laws that prevent people from nurturing natural gardens that support birds, butterflies and bees? Attend local meetings and speak up to get them changed. Be vocal in your support of local conservation issues and the protection of what little nature is left in our towns and cities. Encourage your town leaders to sign on to initiatives like the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge to commit to changing municipal practices that harm these iconic butterflies (and many other species). It’s the perfect way to live that old saying “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
There are so many more than just five things that I wish I knew early in my career! Here are some of the more noteworthy ones:
- Not everyone will wish you success, and that’s ok. Not everyone we encounter is going to be supportive of us and our work. It might be because of politics, or a competition for limited resources, or maybe it’s because of simple jealousy. Often we won’t know exactly why. I’ve experienced lack of support and even deliberately-placed barriers to my work in the past by colleagues. Don’t let it disempower you. Try to rise above and don’t let it drag you down. Focus on the work and be confident in yourself. There’s likely nothing you can do to change that person’s mind, so expending emotional energy on their negativity is usually fruitless, so expend that energy doing good work that makes a difference instead.
- You might not ever solve the problem. This is a hard realization that only comes with time when you work in wildlife conservation and likely many other causes. The enormity of the problems we face and the lack of resources and often political will to tackle those problems is truly overwhelming at times. I’ve certainly had those moments of despair when the reality sets in that you’re not going to save that species, or get that law to protect wildlife passed, or ever be able to spend as much money as polluters in the fight to fix the damage they’ve done. “Compassion fatigue” is a real thing and many of us who work in conservation have experienced it as we fight what often seems like an uphill battle. I learned long ago to acknowledge that reality rather than fighting it or trying to put a rose-colored spin on the situation. And then get back up and keep doing the work–because what’s at stake in conservation is too important to just give up on it, even knowing you can’t accomplish everything.
- Network, network, network! It’s important to study hard and do the work to become an expert in your field, but often who you know is as important as what you know. Put yourself out there and don’t be afraid of networking. You never know who might be helpful to you, your cause or your career. True story: I first applied to the National Wildlife Federation to be the intern for the Garden for Wildlife program. I didn’t get the job. But I kept in touch with the folks that interviewed me, I participated actively in their Garden for Wildlife online communities, and I always said hello whenever I saw them at events. Three years later, I was offered the national program manager position without even having to interview for it. I worked hard and increased my skills, knowledge and experience as a naturalist in those three years and earned the position, but networking was a key part of why I got the job.
- It’s ok to change your mind. Those of us who work for causes typically feel very passionate about the issues we’re working to solve. It’s very easy to become dogmatic in that fight, but I’ve learned over the years the importance of keeping an open, objective mind. Facts are facts, but it’s also true that sometimes we gain new knowledge that we didn’t know before which alters our understanding of the world. That is actually what the scientific process is all about, evolving our understanding based on new data and what continued scientific inquiry reveals. If there is sound science that shows that something you believed to be true isn’t, it’s ok to change your mind and evolve your thinking.
- Lean into equity, even when it’s uncomfortable. I’m a white, cisgender man and have been the recipient of all of the privilege that comes with those identities my entire life. It’s very easy to move through life without ever being aware of or acknowledging our privileges. When you have privilege, it’s also easy to do nothing about the discrimination, othering, oppression and violence (emotional, political, physical) that so many people experience on a daily basis based on nothing more than their identities and the deep bigotry of American culture. In addition to those other identities, I also happen to be gay, and so I’ve been the recipient of that bigotry throughout my life and know what it feels like. One tremendously important thing I’ve learned, however, is that just because I’ve felt the sting of bigotry doesn’t mean that I can’t inflict it on others. I’ve learned that I still have plenty of blinders and still find myself making mistakes that reinforce white supremacy culture, transphobia or misogyny. I know this because I’m fortunate enough to have friends and colleagues that call me out on it. It doesn’t matter if it’s unwitting or unintentional, or how uncomfortable that it makes me. Embrace the discomfort and commit to learning and doing better. That’s a difficult lesson to learn and can be an even harder one to embrace in order to make the necessary changes in our thinking, our words and our behavior. Do it anyway. We have a long way to go before we achieve true equity in this country, but the work starts with you.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
If not you, then who? The world is full of problems, challenges and sometimes even horrors. It can be overwhelming. That is definitely the case when you look at all the harm we humans have done to our fellow species and the planet that sustains us all. It can be especially disheartening when you realize that no matter how hard we work, we’re probably not going to have enough people or resources to ever fully solve the problems we face. But you know what? That’s not a reason to stop trying. If we don’t get involved at least trying to solve the conservation crisis, or give up because it’s too daunting, then we’ve already lost. The thought of this beautiful planet degraded by pollution, habitat destruction and mass extinction of the utterly mind-blowing, beautiful and mysterious species that share the Earth with us is far worse to me than putting in the hard work to fight to save as much of it as we can.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In addition to being a “nature geek,” and also a more traditional geek, I love science fiction and fantasy, whether it’s movies, books, art or comics. I’m a major fan of the series ElfQuest, which though as the name suggests is a fantasy series, also has a lot of science and nature underpinnings. In one story, a character embraces the idea of “shine where you love.” It means to throw yourself fully into the thing that you are most passionate about and to use your love of it to make a difference in the world. I really love that idea. It’s such a positive and empowering concept. It’s so simple and I wish it was a message that we gave to kids more powerfully as a society. It’s exactly how I feel about my own career choices and my work at the National Wildlife Federation promoting and inspiring people to garden for wildlife.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’ve been very fortunate to have met so many inspirational people in my work. Jane Goodall, who I’ve met on several occasions, will always be a highlight. I’ve gotten to meet Marty Stouffer, host of the Wild America series that I grew up watching, and to actually work on-camera with wildlife host Jeff Corwin on several projects. I’ve gotten to work with Dr. Doug Tallamy, whose research into the impact that native plants and gardening for wildlife can have has been groundbreaking. I’ve met many celebrities doing my work as a TV naturalist–including Martha Stewart, who is another inspiration to me. Every day I get to interact with some of the most dedicated, inspiring conservationists doing the work to save our fellow species, and that is just a true gift.
So I’m going to go beyond my fellow conservationists for this one. As I mentioned, I’m way into geek culture in addition to being a conservationist, and I’m a pretty big Star Wars fan–especially of the Princess Leia character. I have a huge photo of Carrie Fisher as Leia framed on my wall at home. It would have been incredible to have gotten to meet Carrie, who I just adored. With her passing in 2016, that’s no longer possible–but I would equally love to meet Mark Hamill. In addition to bringing us Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill is so incredibly funny and so generous with his fans on social media (and I know he wouldn’t be offended at Carrie Fisher being my first choice). He also has quite a lot to say about the issues facing our world, all of which I agree with. It would be an absolute blast to be able to hang out with him, and who knows, maybe he’d want to get into gardening for wildlife? It wouldn’t surprise me.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!