CLEVELAND – At the corner of West 48th Street and Kouba Avenue in Cleveland, the animal kingdom collides with city life.
For decades, Art Ledger has filled his shop on Cleveland’s West Side with deer heads, fish, reptiles and birds.
“I’m in love with wildlife,” Ledger said.
It all started when Ledger worked as an apprentice in a funeral home.
“Humans are dirty, it’s hard to work with them,” Ledger said.
After serving as a Marine in Vietnam, Ledger changed course.
“I decided I didn’t want parts of humans anymore, I would be working with animals,” Ledger said.
At 22, Ledger began learning taxidermy in the building he owns today.
“There was a man, Mr. Kosar, who decided he would take me under his arm,” Ledger said.
The passion to preserve animals was born out of art.
“I pulled my way out of high school,” Ledger said.
Ledger, the first colored taxidermist to own his own shop, said making history led to accidents.
He recounted what happened when he attended a taxidermy conference in the 1970s.
“Hey, sir, hurry up, go into the kitchen and get our food ready. I said I don’t cook. I’m a taxidermist,” Ledger said.
Over the years, Ledger’s commitment to conservation has spread throughout his community.
“The west side has been deteriorating for a long time,” Ledger said.
The now 77-year-old wasn’t going to let that happen under his watch.
“Day and night I wasn’t asleep. I thought I was back in Vietnam,” Ledger said.
Ledger was on the lookout for the illegal tire dumping as he worked to encourage his West 48th Street neighbors to be proud of their neighborhood.
“Why are you doing that? And they’re going to throw the paper right in front of you and I’ll go, hey wait a minute, we gotta clean this up, we gotta live here,” Ledger said.
Although there wasn’t much buy-in from his neighbors at first, Ledger stayed the course and bought some empty land filled with trash and turned them into gardens with greenhouses and an orchard.
“We saw a lot of these little pocket gardens popping up around the neighborhood. And that was one of the first places it happened,” said Susan Underwood.
Underwood is with Metro West Community Development.
“We rely heavily on residents and community members to step up and be leaders in the community,” Underwood said.
Underwood met Ledger at a pop-up community event at the start of the pandemic.
During their time together, the taxidermist talked about his dream of turning his shop into a wildlife museum.
“It piqued my interest when he said he wanted to set up a taxidermy wildlife museum. I thought it was interesting, unique. There is no such thing in Cleveland,” said Underwood.
Underwood is part of the team that strives to raise funds to help continue Ledger’s legacy.
“Introducing wildlife to an urban environment is in itself very important,” Underwood said.
Underwood believes the unique museum could be an economic engine for the neighborhood.
“I think it might be appealing to outsiders and locals,” Underwood said.
While recounting Ledger’s inspiring journey since returning from Vietnam.
“They couldn’t kill me there. They aren’t going to kill me here,” Ledger said. “I feel really good sometimes just going up and down just to see the trees and see the gardens and green spaces that we’ve created.”
If you want to help Art Ledger’s dream come true – you can check out his fundraising page here.
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