Sunday Spotlight: Debbie Mumford, Owner/Director, The Nature of Things

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Debbie Mumford, owner/director of The Nature of Things, with one of her ferrets. Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

The day after 9/11, Debbie Mumford was back at work. It’s not that she wasn’t affected by what had just taken place, but the nature of her work didn’t allow her to stop. Mumford, a naturalist, was scheduled to teach a “Mommy & Me” class that day and she couldn’t let the children down. That’s the beauty of toddlers; the world keeps turning for them even when it stops for the rest of us.

That day, like every other day, Mumford got down on the floor with the kids. She let her turtles out, and they began to explore the area. One mom leaned in to get a better look and quickly became fascinated simply watching the turtle up close. For a moment, this mom was able to escape into the natural world and forget about the horrors that had taken place the day before. Her enthusiasm prompted her child to come over and join her, eager to see what mom was so enthralled with.

Moments like this are what Mumford will miss the most when she closes the doors on The Nature of Things, the family business that she and her husband, Allan, have run out of their home in North Salem for nearly forty years. “So much of what we do as parents is watch other people teach our kids. It’s so important for our kids to see us learn with them and be excited about something together. It levels the playing field a little bit,” Mumford said.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

Last month, Mumford announced that The Nature of Things had made the difficult decision to close following its final program on April 1. In a note sent to clients and friends, she wrote, “we have educated thousands of teachers, early childhood center staff, and the general public yearning for nature and animal understandings; and helped domestic and wild animals find safe homes. We have been blessed.”

For the past couple years, Mumford and her husband Allan have been putting their own money into the business to help keep it going. The pandemic dealt a blow that they simply couldn’t recover from. Though Mumford had tried to pivot to virtual programming when everything shut down, the format just didn’t compare to The Nature of Things’ core value of hands-on, experiential learning. Mumford knew that even if they were able to secure one of the loans made available to struggling small businesses, chances were that they wouldn’t be able to pay it back.

“It’s fun building a program. It’s not so fun watching it die,” said Mumford.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

As Mumford, family and staff began the heart-rending process of selling off animals, equipment and library materials, they have found comfort in sharing the many fond memories they created together through the years and people they have inspired along the way.

“I can’t tell you how many movie stars whose houses I’ve been to,” Mumford recalled, reflecting on the many birthday parties that The Nature of Things brought its animals to. “Sometimes I’d bring my own children to help me out. We met Richard Gere’s son and Stanley Tucci’s kids. Kids are kids,” she said.

Beyond animal programming, The Nature of Things also taught kids and teachers about other aspects of the natural world, such as apple cider and maple sugaring. “We started bringing apple cider presses to schools so that they knew the difference between cider and juice. We started a program on maple sugaring so kids would know that this is a New York state thing; it’s what we’re known for,” Mumford said.

As Mumford’s business grew, she brought on staff with a passion for the outdoors to help her run programming. Many of the young people who worked for The Nature of Things went on to do important work in the fields of science and nature study. Rebecca Bose, a North Salem resident and Curator at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, started her career working with Mumford. At its peak, The Nature of Things had nearly a dozen people on staff.

Over the years, the business distinguished itself as one that featured an inquiry-based approach to live animal exploration, working with over 140 clients. The Nature of Things brought its animal menagerie to schools, childcare centers, recreation centers, libraries, camps and more all over Westchester and the greater New York City area. The animals under Mumford’s care totaled over 160, including reptiles, birds, rodents, amphibians, insects and more.

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

“It’s been a really wonderful, hands-on program,” Mumford said. “I do believe that kids can touch animals in a safe way,” she added, citing the steps she took with her 41-year-old turtle, Sherlock. “He had a bath every day so that kids could touch his shell. We allowed kids to have that experience, but we were safe.” Mumford added that Sherlock is the only turtle she knows who gets letters from kids at Christmas.

Even after The Nature of Things closes, Mumford will continue to educate children and adults alike through her role as a Kindergarten teacher in the Edgemont Union Free School District in lower Westchester and as an education professor at Westchester Community College and Mercy College. “I love watching people learn and being able to help them improve their skills. It recharges me when I tell them all the wonderful things they can do as a teacher,” she said.

Reflecting on the totality of The Nature of Things, Mumford said, “if I think back on the 38 years, it was a really positive experience. We did our job and hopefully the next generation will take over. I’m happy to know that we had these animals, and that we cared for them.”

Photo by Benjamin Allen, HudValley Photo

While The Nature of Things will no longer deliver its programming, its legacy will live on in the child who is inspired to turn off their video game and head outside, the teacher who can show their student how to spot a land turtle, or the parent who takes their child for a walk at Ward Pound Ridge at dusk, listening closely for the sounds of nature.

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