Wild Animals, Camping and Justin Bieber: Behind the Scenes with NWF at the Today Show

The National Wildlife Federation’s Naturalist and Media Personality David Mizejewski has been appearing on television for years, bringing wildlife into people’s homes while sharing NWF’s mission with  millions of viewers.   As a broadcasting enthusiast and a regular follower of Dave’s monthly animal segments, I wanted to experience not only what happens before the camera starts rolling, but be able to share it with you all too.

8:53 a.m., June 23, 2011: Arrival to the Today Show, Rockefeller Plaza, New York City

I walked up to the security guard outside of NBC Studios and said I was with David Mizejewski.  He opened the gate,

“First revolving door to your right,” he said.

Matt Lauer and the side of Al Roker at the Today Show. MBlevins/NWF
And the magic words are ‘David Mizejewski,’ I thought to myself as I passed the crowds of screaming fans, wondering why they were all excited.

In my first 20 seconds into the studio, I saw Al Roker and Matt Lauer.   They were 4-feet away from me, reading their scripts and getting ready for the next segment.  I needed someone to pinch me—that moment was as real as it gets for this gal.
I went downstairs to find David.  There were dogs and people running around everywhere, and three ladies singing, practicing for their on-air debut.

I found David, standing amongst the chaos.  He was waiting for the previous dog segment to head out before bringing the wildlife in.  David mentioned that the last thing he wanted to do was mix the dogs with the wildlife.  I agreed—that seemed like it wouldn’t end well.

9:23 a.m: Justin Bieber, the Green Room and Chaos

“We have to wait to get into the Green Room (that’s where show guests wait before their appearance) because Justin Bieber’s in there,” said David, as he continued to explain that it usually isn’t this chaotic.

About 10 minutes later, Bieber and his girlfriend, Selena Gomez, walked out holding hands and headed upstairs to the screaming fans where he promoted his new perfume.

David Mizejewski in the Green Room getting ready for his Today Show appearance. MBlevins/NWF
David was next in line for his touch-up and we entered the Green Room.  There was a long counter filled with make-up and hair supplies, and five big mirrors and a dozen huge lights overhead.  David sat down and a makeup artist applied a little foundation and some powder onto his face.  I wondered how much makeup Bieber used…  David is a regular on the Today Show, and as soon as he walked into the makeup area all the stylists wanted to know what animals he brought with him.

10:02 a.m: Two Turtles, a Fox, an Owl and an Opossum

But the real stars of the Today Show appearance needed no makeup.  There was an opossum, an eagle owl, and a red fox, along with a snapping turtle and a wood turtle.  The wood turtle’s shell was a little dirty so his handler gave him his very own touch up so he shined for the camera.

David rehearsed handing off the animals to and from the animal handlers who work behind the scenes because it’s important to ensure that the animals are safe while also not endangering anyone during the segment. Such as the snapping turtle— David had to hold him tightly with both hands, under and above his shell.  The little guy tried to swim away in mid-air while also cutting David’s thumb with his back claw.  I had no idea that a snapping turtle could be so beautiful.

Animal handler cleaning the wood turtle. MBlevins/NWF
10:28 a.m: Show Time

We headed upstairs to the studio where the segment would air.  Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb were the hosts interacting with David and the animals.  The crew hooked David up to a microphone and the cameras were put into position while the animal handlers set up the animals so they were easy to access during the live segment; they had four minutes to show all five animals.

As a person who’s watched live broadcasts for years, I’m not sure I was even ready for the countdown…

In 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1…

During the four minute segment, Dave talked to Hoda and Kathie Lee about NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout that happened this past Saturday, June 25 in cities all over the country.  The annual fundraising event encourages families to spend more time outside and connect with the great outdoors.

One after another, the two animal handlers ran back and forth, and back and forth behind the scenes, putting animals away and getting new ones to hand off to David who was simultaneously handling the animals, dealing with Kathie Lee and Hoda’s banter, and discussing NWF’s mission to protect wildlife and promoting the Great American Backyard Campout.

Behind the scenes at the Today Show. David Mizejewski holding the red fox while talking with Kathie Lee and Hoda. MBlevins/NWF
The eagle owl was my favorite.  As the animal handler carried him back to his box, he starred right at me with his enormous yellow eyes and he hooted when being put away.  I would have taken a picture, but there’s no telling how he would have reacted.

That’s also something else that David stressed during the segment: seeing wildlife up close (whether it’s in the wilderness or your backyard) is really exciting, but we need to respect wild animals and never try to approach, touch or make pets of them, for our safety as well as theirs.

10:47 a.m: That’s a Wrap

And then as quick as it began, the segment ended (Watch the full segment here!).  Producers and crew members began shuffling here and there, moving the table and green carpet around, then setting up a few new chairs, and it was on to another segment.

For me, the hour-and-a-half-adventure put a new twist on “exploring wild places.”  It was unlike any nature hike or camping trip I’ve ever been on, as I never realized the constant intensity that goes on behind the scene (I also have this feeling I wouldn’t be seeing Justin Bieber in the woods) .   Not to mention, some of the “animals” I saw were Matt Lauer and Kathie Lee Gifford; a pair that I’ve grown up watching over the years, and the thrill to see them working on a live set.

NBC Studios at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, New York. MBlevins/NWF
As the rain began to fall, I settled into a cab outside of NBC Studios.  Out the window, I snapped a shot of the gold, NBC News sign on the side of the building, and it hit me: this “wild place” is another great example of NWF’s commitment to making sure every person has an opportunity to see and learn about the beautiful animals that roam not only in the highest mountains, but in our own backyards.

I left knowing this “wild place” would be one of the most unique I’d ever get to explore.