David Clipner, the Nature Cure

Tucked right next to Black Pond Woods, perched atop a small hill on Ann Arbor’s north side, you can find the Leslie Science Center. Large gardens surround century old buildings. Soft grass covers the hillside. Birds chirp. Kids play. It seems as if everything is blissfully humming along to the beat of nature itself. David Clipner, Chief Wildlife Curator and Naturalist at Leslie Science Center, knows the unfortunate reality: change is afoot. Children are refusing to walk barefoot in the grass for fear of getting germy. Others are frightened of the woods, assuming it is teaming with grizzly bears. As time passes, Clipner, 34, is seeing visitors become increasingly disconnected with nature, and he is doing all he can to fix that.

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David Clipner, pictured with one of the Leslie Science Center’s iguanas

“Nature deficit disorder” is the phrase that Clipner uses to describe the physical and emotional consequences a person experiences from a lack of exposure to the natural world. “We have a lot of children that come here who have never been outside in a wooded area before,” says Clipner. The result: high levels of childhood obesity, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. The antidote: education, but unlike other educators, you will not find Clipner giving classroom lectures. Through hands-on wildlife demonstrations and outdoor experiences, Clipner strives to not only educate visitors about the environment, but also to make sure they walk away with a deeper connection to the world around them.

Clipner’s work at Leslie Science Center began while he was pursuing an education degree at Eastern Michigan University. He started as a volunteer in the raptor program, dedicating hundreds of hours to cleaning cages and establishing relationships with the birds. Francie Krawcke, Raptor Program Director and his boss at the time, recognized his knack for inspiring others about nature early on. “The kids wanted to be with him, the adults wanted to be with him,” she says. Three years later that charisma paid off when he was promoted to Wildlife Curator, a position he has held for four years.

While his responsibilities at the Leslie Science Center include animal care, forest management, and exhibit creation, it is clear that Clipner’s role as an educator is the one most important to him. “I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t like teaching,” he says. As a kid he would sit his friends down and teach them the names and back stories of his action figures. That enthusiasm never faded.

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Clipner showing off a tarantula

Clipner lives and breathes nature and education. Encircling his left calf is a tattooed illustration of truffula trees from Dr. Suess’s environmental themed children’s book, “The Lorax.” You will not find a printer in his office, but you will find a tarantula, three iguanas, a snapping turtle, and two salamanders. Even in his off time he performs animal demonstrations for his life partner, Mary Schimitigal’s, third grade class at Adams STEM academy in Ypsilanti. Mary describes how many of her students’ families do not own a car. Some kids have never been out of Ypsilanti. “It’s awesome,” she says, “They never get to see stuff like that. They love it.”

According to the Leslie Science Center’s website, its mission is to provide environmental education and experiences to visitors, “by fostering understanding, appreciation, stewardship and respect for the natural world.” “We provide them with the opportunity to get dirty,” says Clipner. Today, getting a little dirty might be exactly what visitors need. According to studies conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend an average of 6.5 hours on electronic media over the course of a day, and only 30 minutes of unstructured outdoor playtime over the course of an entire week.

Clipner is continuing to find new ways to get visitors to interact with nature and cure their “Nature Deficit Disorder”. New animal exhibits are under construction and programs are being planned, all in hope that more visitors will pay him a visit at the Leslie Science Center. With Clipner’s help, more and more are joining that chorus, that hums along to the beat of nature itself atop that small hill on Ann Arbor’s north side.

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