The buzz

Meet a Naturalist: Michelle Cipiti, fulfilling a dream

A person posing for a photo with a forest as the backdrop.
Michelle Cipiti. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Michelle Cipiti may be a relative newcomer to the Forest Preserve District, but she has realized that a common thread in the jobs she has had in her life has been educating the public about the natural world.

She studied zoology in college and worked as a zookeeper at Brookfield Zoo Chicago, where the work didn’t just involve taking care of the resident animals but also chatting with zoo visitors. Later she worked as a preschool teacher at a nature-based preschool, where part of every school day involved bringing the kids outside to learn and play.

Today she works as an interpretive naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, and what she appreciates about her previous jobs as well as her current one is the opportunity to make connections with people.

“I feel like if you can just make one little connection for people, that’s the moment. That’s what I enjoy,” she said.

Cipiti started with the Forest Preserve as a facility office manager at Isle a la Cache Museum. While in the position, she hoped to one day get a job as a naturalist but didn’t allow herself to get too hopeful in case the opportunity didn’t present itself.

“It was a hope and a dream, but I didn’t let myself get too excited,” she said.

Now that she is a naturalist she feels like she has found her people, both at Hidden Oaks and at the Forest Preserve. “Being an interpreter isn’t what we do, it’s who we are,” she said. “I’m so appreciative for the opportunity to do this job, and I feel blessed.”

She said that now that she is working as an interpretive naturalist she’s realized she was also doing similar work in her previous job, just not formally as she is today.

“Even when I was at the zoo, I would stand at Baboon Island and feed the baboons. Even then, people would come up and ask questions and I would make these really valuable connections with them.”

With the Forest Preserve, her job includes educating people on the natural world all around us, but she isn’t intimidated by the fact that the natural world is so vast.

“I used to feel dumb when I couldn’t answer questions, but not anymore,” she said. “You can’t know everything. You just can’t.”

Instead, she views those questions she doesn’t have the answers to as opportunities to do research and then follow up to share that newfound information.

Recognizing that she’ll never know everything also presents opportunities to continue to challenge herself. For 2024, her goal is to get to know all of our local snake species by sight.

The curiosity can be contagious too. “Sometimes you just go down the rabbit hole. Someone says something and then that sparks a million more questions to find answers to,” she explained.

Cipiti has a soft spot for much-maligned creatures like snakes, spiders, bugs and the like and enjoys having opportunities to change people’s minds about these often misunderstood animals. “If I can just help make people better understand them, that’s the goal,” she said.

Take Canada geese. A lot of people don’t like their aggressive behavior, she said, “but if you think about it, they’re really just being good parents.”

Cipiti enjoys leading programs with groups of all ages. She doesn’t have a favorite age group to work with because each offers something unique. She said every program she leads has its own reward. People sign up for a particular reason, and her job is to accommodate that and ensure they get what they are looking for out of the program, be it a bird hike for adults or an activity directed at young children.

“To me, when I go on the hike or the program or whatever it is, if I can see that people are enjoying it and they’ve learned something and they take something away from it, that’s a win,” she said.

She said she likes to get to know her audience during programs, and one way she does so is by “working the line,” or interacting with people throughout rather than just leading from the front of the pack.

“Even halfway through a program you can see from the looks on people’s faces or the questions they ask that they are getting something out of it," she said, "and that’s so rewarding."

She said she thinks it’s important to be mindful that people come into their connection with the Forest Preserve with different backgrounds and experiences, and recognizing that is essential in growing relationships and sharing knowledge.

“When you live and breathe something all the time, you take it for granted that everyone knows those same things, and they don’t,” she said. “You have to kind of project yourself into their shoes of not knowing what they know.”

Having to do that day in and day out never gets old, though, because her passion for it is unending, she said. “I get to get up every day and talk about what is my passion, and I get to live it and do it. And I get paid for it!”

About this series: The Forest Preserve's program coordinators, recreation coordinator and interpretive naturalists are among the friendly faces that greet you when you visit any of our visitor centers and preserves. They are the men and women who lead the District's public programs as well as educational and recreational programs held in the preserves and beyond. They are the people who pique your curiosity and answer your queries, and we want you to get to know more about them and what drives them.

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