Miguel Ordeñana remembers the day vividly.
He was 5 years old, exploring the dark but fascinating exhibits of the Los Angeles County National History Museum.
“I was [there] with my mom, giving her a headache,” he recalled.
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Like other kids, he found himself running around the Hall of African Mammals, where exhibits of gorillas, ostriches and elephants were displayed in the constructed habitats. Then, Ordeñana’s mother said something that would set him on the path to his career.
“‘They’re not alive, but it’s real. All these things that you see here are real,” he said. “That was enough to get my mind working.”
The seeds of Ordeñana’s future as a wildlife biologist had been planted. He would grow up to bring his passion to hundreds of children visiting the museum today – 32 years later – working as a community science manager.
Ordeñana’s family lived in a large apartment complex in Los Feliz, south of Griffith Park. Just blocks away, he would make a name for himself while working for the United States Forest Service. He and another scientist placed cameras on trees around the famed park, looking for species living there in complete biological isolation because of the dangerous freeways on all sides. They expected to find deer, raccoons and the like.
And then, just a month after they began the project, a mountain lion walked in front of one of the cameras.
“It was a revelation,” Ordeñana said. “Like seeing Bigfoot or La Chupacabra for the very first time.”
A young male puma the team named “P-22” had defied the odds, crossing freeways to live in Griffith Park alone. His very existence cemented Ordeñana’s “life passion,” telling the world about wildlife in big cities – where it’s least expected.
“You got to believe in yourself sometimes,” Ordeñana said.
It’s something he said he tells the kids who visit the museums “community science” wing. Its mission, according to manager Michelle Race, is to dispel a common misconception.
“When you live in a city, it’s easy to believe everything is concrete and that nothing ‘exists’ here,” she said.
Ordeñana’s field work, according to Race, defies that belief. He and his cameras are finding bats in LA – he’s already documented 12 different kinds.
“Nature also exists in your backyard, or in a planter that’s next to you,” Race said.
Race believes discovering nature at home connects children to their communities like nothing else can. It’s an experience Ordeñana had as a young boy and now pays forward with his colleagues by taking kids on scientific field trips, showing them wonders beneath their feet and at their fingertips.
“My mission is to really cultivate that next generation,” he said.