Meet a Naturalist: Suzy Lyttle, a childhood dream fulfilled
Suzy Lyttle has known since she was a young child that the job she has now is the job she wanted. As a kid, she didn’t know if the job even existed, but she was undeterred.
“I didn’t know if it was a thing, I was just going to make it a thing,” said Lyttle, the program coordinator at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.
She remembers as a girl walking with her older sister and pointing out the different birds, telling her, “This is what I want to do.” She has always loved the outdoors and was active in Scouts, spending time hiking, backpacking, skiing and even whitewater rafting with her troop.
She knew from her experiences then that she wanted to work outdoors, so when she was very young she decided she wanted to be a zookeeper. It was one of the few jobs she could think of where she could work outside, so it seemed like the perfect choice at the time.
When she achieved her childhood dream of being a zookeeper by working as an orangutan zookeeper during summers in college, she knew she needed to change her focus because she knew she wanted to be working with people.
“My favorite part of the job was talking to people about the animals,” she said of her time as a zookeeper.
That served as an awakening for her about what kind of work to pursue. With the help of her advisers and professors at Purdue University who could see she had a knack for teaching and a love of the outdoors, she got on a path that brought her to the Forest Preserve District.
She started with the Forest Preserve as a naturalist teaching fellow and then was hired on as a full-time naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center in 2013. She’s been a program coordinator at Hidden Oaks since the District acquired it in 2022.
No matter what facility she’s working at, she relishes the opportunities to connect with visitors, whether it’s kids on a field trip seeing frogs and salamanders for the first time or repeat visitors who come in excited to tell her about their recent finds in nature.
Working at a nature center allows her to grow her knowledge on many subjects, from birds to snakes to trees and more. When she first started, she said she seemed to focus on a new topic each year. After 10 years, she has a solid foundation to build on.
“I’ve definitely grown to know a little bit about everything, which is kind of a naturalist’s job,” she said.
Now that she’s at Hidden Oaks, she’s hoping to spend more time building her fishing skills and learning more about our local fish species for her work with programs at Hidden Lakes Trout Farm, where fishing is a staple.
The varied nature of the job is one of the things Lyttle enjoys most. In addition to leading programs and field trips, Lyttle and the District’s other interpretive naturalists and program coordinators design exhibits and displays for the nature center, plan larger public events and spend time meeting with visitors from day to day.
“This job is so special and unique because we do so many things,” she said, adding many jobs in the field are more limiting and narrowly focused. “Every day is so different, and a lot of places are not like that.”
In addition to Lyttle’s duties as a program coordinator at Hidden Oaks, she also hosts the Forest Preserve’s monthly television program, “The Buzz.” Or you may recognize her from various videos on the District’s social media channels, including TikTok, Facebook and Instagram.
When the opportunity to host "The Buzz" came along, it seemed like the perfect challenge and a great way to stay up to date on what’s going on across the District, Lyttle explained.
“I’m still going to new preserves that I haven’t even been to and learning so many new things about what (others who work for the Forest Preserve) do,” she said. “We touch so many audiences too.”
Both hosting "The Buzz" and working at the nature center are a chance to build relationships, be it in person or digitally, she said. “I think it’s really important that the community sees our faces and knows who we are.”
At Hidden Oaks, she sees that community building come to fruition as people come back again and again, utilizing the nature center as a valuable community resource. She said she's come to appreciate the diversity of visitors at Hidden Oaks, with the nature center hosting visitors from every generation week after week.
All those visitors are opportunities to teach people about all the amazing things out there in the world, even those overlooked or underappreciated species, she explained. “If I can tell you how great it is, what it does, how it affects our environment, maybe you can start to love it.”
Lyttle said that, ultimately, no matter who she in interacting with in her work or how, her goal is for people to understand that nature is all of us.
“I just want people to know that you’re a part of this. You’re not above it or outside it. We are in nature together,” she said. “We’re all neighbors here.”