CLEVELAND - When Cleveland Metroparks Zoo director Steve Taylor was a child, he often brought home frogs and other creatures.
"My parents used to say, 'Let the kid do his thing; he'll eventually find something that's going to work out.'"
Perhaps little did Taylor's parents realize their animal-loving son was destined to be a longtime friend of the animals who would eventually direct the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
After 24 years at the helm of the Cleveland Zoo, Taylor is preparing to retire in December. It has been a good run for the man who seems to know every one of the hundreds of employees by name as he walks through the scores of acres set aside as habitats for the animals. Taylor is talkative of the animals as he walks from one exhibit to another. He knows the animals well,
At the highly-regarded African Elephant Crossing, he speaks matter-of-factly of each animal.
"Sometimes they don't like each other so you have to have a way to separate them," said Taylor. "And sometimes they want to be together all the time so you have to be able to do that."
He chuckles as he adds the elephants are similar to people, emphasizing some of them get along with each other better than others.
Taylor has long studied elephants. On the walls of his office are several photographs he took of elephants in Africa. Much of his life has been a series of safaris into Africa, where he has studied animals.
"There's nothing like Africa to see the big charismatic mega-verterbrates," he said as he pointed to the pictures gracing his wall. "You could basically spend a whole safari just watching elephants in Africa," he said.
However, it is not only the elephants that maintain his deep interest as he has guided the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo through its various periods for the last two dozen years. Certainly, among his great moments were his pushes for the building of the $20 million Rainforest Exhibit. It is the largest of its type in this country.
It gives the visitor the actual feeling of walking through a rainforest in Africa, South or Central America, or Asia. The recorded sounds of the jungle come through loudspeakers in the huge facility. However, there are enough animals to make their own squeals and grunts. The Rainforest has been a popular attraction that Taylor fought hard to get for the Cleveland collection of animals.
He said the hardest part of his job has been finances "and particularly raising money for capital." However, Taylor has been successful in guiding the zoo into the 21st century. It is a far cry from the Cleveland Zoo's earliest years when in 1882, the zoo began. Cleveland businessman and philanthropist Jeptha Wade was instrumental in getting the zoo started in the Wade Park area of the Cleveland east Side. The first animals in the zoo was a herd of deer.
Years later, when the zoo moved to its present location in the Brookside Park area of the city's west side, the first zoo building was taken apart and moved part-by-part to the new location. It plays a prominent roll in the zoo today.
The zoo attracts about 1.3 million visitors a year. It is one of the largest attractions in the city of Cleveland. Along with the sounds of the animals, there are the squeals of children who point to the animals that are on both outside and inside displays.
There is one animal for which Taylor has a special affinity. It is Blackie the Hippopotamus. Blackie came to the zoo in 1955 when he was a year old. He is not on public display now, but spends his hours in what is called night quarters. In effect, it is a retirement home for the hippopotamus who wallows in his pool of water and waits on zookeepers to bring his meals.
While walking through the night quarters, Taylor petted Blackie on his large nose. It was a sign of affection and respect. At 57, Blackie is the oldest resident of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Taylor admits he will miss his daily walks through the zoo when he retires in December. However, he emphasizes he will stay involved with the zoo and with the work of conservation of animals, a subject which brings out the passion in his voice.
"Oh, sure," he said with a sure voice. "You have to support the animals and support conservation."
In the giraffe area, Taylor walked confidently with the tall animals, only separated by a 7-foot fence from them. Still, the animals, with their long legs and necks, were able to reach over the fence and grab the leaves Taylor brought as an afternoon snack. They eagerly ate from his hand.
"I'll bet the animals will even miss him," someone said of Taylor. "They don't know me," responded Taylor, with a voice filled with laughter.
No one believed that, understanding it was Taylor's joke. Of course, the animals know him. He has been there for 24 years
and through his administrative abilities and his staff, has kept them all well-fed and comfortable.
One of the giraffes chewed vigorously and reached back down for another mouthful of leaves, still in Taylor's hand. Of course, Steve Taylor offered more munchies. The giraffe loved him for it. As do all the animals in the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where Taylor has walked among them for two dozen years.