CLEVELAND — On the corner of West 48th Street and Kouba Avenue in Cleveland, the animal kingdom collides with city life.
For decades, Art Ledger has been filling his shop on the Cleveland's near West Side with deer heads, fish, reptiles and birds.
"I'm in love with wildlife," said Ledger.
It all started when Ledger worked as an apprentice at a funeral home.
"Humans are dirty, they're hard to work with,” said Ledger.
After serving as a Marine in Vietnam, Ledger changed course.
"I decided I wanted no more parts of human beings, I would work with animals," said Ledger.
At 22, Ledger started learning taxidermy in the building he owns today.
"There was a man Mr. Kosar who decided that he would take me under his arm," said Ledger.
The passion to preserve animals came from art.
"I drew my way out of high school," said Ledger.
Ledger, the first taxidermist of color to own his own shop, said making history led to mishaps.
He shared the story of what happened when he attended a taxidermy conference in the 1970s.
"Hey, mister, hurry up, get in the kitchen and get our food ready. I said I don't do the kitchen. I'm a taxidermist," said Ledger.
Over the years, Ledger's commitment to conserve spilled over into his community.
"The near west side has been deteriorating a long time," said Ledger.
The now 77-year-old was not going to let it happen on his watch.
"Day and night, I didn't sleep. I thought I was back in Vietnam," said Ledger.
Ledger was on the look-out for the illegal dumping of tires as he worked to encourage his neighbors along West 48th Street to take pride in their neighborhood.
"Why ya doing that? And they go throw the paper down right in front of you and I'd go, hey wait a minute, we gotta clean this up we gotta live here," said Ledger.
Despite there not being a lot of buy-in from his neighbors in the beginning, Ledger stayed the course and bought up empty lots filled with garbage and transformed them into gardens with greenhouses and an orchard.
"We've been seeing a lot of these little pocket gardens pop up in the neighborhood. And this was one of the first places where that happened," said Susan Underwood.
Underwood is with Metro West Community Development.
"We rely really heavily on residents and community members to step up and be leaders in the community," said Underwood.
Underwood met Ledger at a community pop-up event early in the pandemic.
During their time together the taxidermist talked about his dream to transform his shop into a wildlife museum.
"It piqued my interest when he said he wanted to do a museum of taxidermy wildlife. I thought that's interesting, unique. There's nothing like that in Cleveland," said Underwood.
Underwood is part of the team working to raise money to help carry on Ledger's legacy.
"Bringing wildlife into an urban environment in and of itself is really important," said Underwood.
Underwood believes the unique museum could be an economic driver for the neighborhood.
"I think it could be attractive to out-of-towners and locals," said Underwood.
All while telling Ledger's inspirational journey since returning from Vietnam.
"They couldn't kill me over there. They're not going to kill me here,” said Ledger. “I feel real good sometimes just to walk up and down just to see the trees and see the gardens and the green spaces that we've created."
If you would like to help Art Ledger's dream become reality - you can check out his fundraising page here.
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