The Legacy of Conservation and Education in Cleveland: A Conversation with Steve Taylor, Retired Dir

During his 24 year tenure as director of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Steve Taylor transformed it from an outdated zoo looking for an identity to a thriving one with great exhibits, one of the best education programs in the nation and extensive conservation efforts. He continues to serve as the zoo’s director emeritus and has been as a mentor to many zoo professionals. Taylor is often considered one of the best zoo directors of all time. Here is his story.

@ Steve Taylor

Taylor began his career as a relief keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo in the early 1970s. “It was the hardest job I ever got,” he recalled. “People were taking a test at Hollywood High School to become an animal keeper- 1300 of them. Everyone who got picked before me had military credit. The zoo at that time was rather new but the architecture was somewhat lacking. They built three types of exhibits- moats, cages and yards that all looked similar. Warren Thomas was hired as director not long after I came. Before him, the director was a city bureaucrat and Dr. Charles Schroeder (legendary director of the San Diego Zoo) took over for six months in between. “

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The Los Angeles Zoo was definitely not the institution it is now from an animal care standpoint back then. “They didn’t have any enrichment, research department or dietitians,” Taylor remembered. “Some of the keepers just couldn’t make it in other city departments so they were put here. I asked a zookeeper what he was feeding and he said, ‘I don’t know what you call it.’ There was a mix of young and old keepers. However, I was always interested in zoos and knew a lot about animals. I thought I wanted to be a curator so I took whatever job they would give me. I was also in graduate school at the time so they let me have Tuesdays and Thursdays off.”

@ Steve Taylor

In the late 1970s, Taylor moved to the San Francisco Zoo to run their children’s zoo. “At that time the city ran the Zoo but the zoological society ran the children’s zoo,” he explained. “It was like having my own place. We mostly had domestic animals but we also had a few exotics like coyotes and parrots. We hand-raised many animals including orangutans, a Malayan tapir, water buffalo and servals. I had some experience with it from LA so it was a good fit for me.” In 1982, Steve Taylor became a zoo director when he was hired to run the Sacramento Zoo.

@ Sacramento Zoo

At the time, the Sacramento Zoo was in the need of a turnaround. “The Sacramento Zoo was largely built in the 30s and 40s with a lot of chain link cages,” Taylor elaborated. “They had just started renovating their lion and tiger exhibits. The zoo had a great collection for its size at the time- Asian elephants, giraffes, orangutans, Arabian oryx, great hornbills, thick-billed parrots. However, it was a small zoo and much of it was outdated. We had limited space as the neighbors didn’t want the zoo to take up more parkland. We nearly doubled attendance while I was there and started to get people to appreciate the zoo. “

@ Sacramento Zoo

Taylor began to find ways to have the zoo’s collection fit into its footprint. “I sent the lone gorilla away and started the process of sending away the elephants,” he commented. “The chimp exhibit was one of the worst around- it was a block and chain links. You wouldn’t see anything that bad in a third world zoo so we had to destroy it as soon as possible. When I got there they were planning an orangutan exhibit. It’s a fairly large moated exhibit with a nice holding area. The orangutans and a gorilla were in cement grottos, which we renovated to build a glass-fronted habitat for chimpanzees. It made a big difference for the great apes.”

@ Sacramento Zoo

The zoo also improved its staff. “I made some professional changes,” Taylor explained. “The city always had budget issues so additional staff was problematic. We restructured the staff so some staff members that weren’t animal people went to other areas in the city. We hired more professional keepers. We also beefed up the zoo society- we got it up to 6000 members. They started an education and marketing department. Eventually we turned over concessions to the nonprofit. None of this existed when I got there. After I left the zoo was privatized.”

@ Sacramento Zoo

In 1989, Steve Taylor was recruited by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which was in the need of a new identity. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave California and Cleveland was quite an undistinguished zoo but I saw it as an opportunity,” he recalled. “They only had one member of the staff who had worked at another zoo. For ten years they had a former HR director running the Zoo who didn’t appreciate what a zoo was about. Prior to my arrival nine employees from the Zoo and Cleveland Metroparks were either terminated or resigned for various reasons. It provided me with an opportunity to build a new staff. They had built this unusual 90,000 square-foot building called The Rainforest, which was half done. They had a roof over it but it was all cement and glass. It looked like a department store, not a zoo exhibit. They were using in-house staff to design the exhibit. They had no experience designing exhibits on that scale. The Board of Park Commissioners and the new Cleveland Metroparks director saw that The Rainforest could be a big problem and he wanted to do it right.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Taylor and his team turned what was bound to be a white elephant to a facility that changed the direction of the Zoo. “Hiring a zoo designer changed everything,” he explained. “A guy named Tony Schibly, then working for Larson Design in Arizona, helped design the exhibits in The Rainforest and we used him a lot after that. There were two floors of the building, which was tough since you had to put pools on a second floor. We found ways to make the spaces larger. For instance, there were three primate exhibits so we took the floor out in this area to make it one large two-story Francois langur habitat. There was a crocodile exhibit with an elevated viewing ramp but we took it out and did underwater viewing instead.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“One of the commissioners said he didn’t’ care how much it cost as long as we did it right,” Taylor stated. “We couldn’t change the shape of the building and some of the smaller exhibits stayed the same but we made it much more naturalistic. It was difficult since there was so much cement so we had to jackhammer a lot of it out and put plants in it. We made sure there were a lot of life plants and even made the top part a rainforest garden. We opened the building up to allow a lot of natural light to come in and we changed it to a rather lush rainforest. We also made sure the species we had were true to the rainforest theme. They wanted to put Aldabra tortoises and flamingos in there but we took them out to do species more true to the biome. “

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

While The Rainforest features a wide variety of animals from rainforest around the world, its stars are the orangutans. “The orangutan habitat was already built but we changed it from a cage to an area with open top access,” Taylor recalled. “We took the top out and put a big artificial tree up the middle to give a lot of vertical space. When I got there, the gorillas, chimps and orangutans were all in the Primate Cat and Aquatics Complex in small, glass-fronted cages with holding in the basement. We moved the orangutans to The Rainforest and sent the chimps out so we could have a better facility for a bachelor group of gorillas. The gorilla indoor area took over the space formerly used for all three apes before. We also added an outdoor habitat.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo made The Rainforest have a strong conservation and educational component. “We hired an education curator who made sure the exhibit talked about what a rainforest is and how we could protect it,” Taylor stated. “We used the building to raise money for rainforest projects around the world. Inside there’s a human population clock next to one documenting the disappearance of the rainforest, which is quite powerful. We also put in a research hut which talks about the importance of researchers studying the rainforest.”

@ Scott Richardson

When it opened in 1992, The Rainforest dramatically transformed the Zoo and its reputation both with the community and the zoo world. “The Rainforest was really special,” Taylor reflected. “It was the first modern exhibit at the Zoo that had an educational theme and environmental message. Everything in it related to each other, there were natural plants and the animals had more natural spaces. It created a zoo that was much different and attendance went up to 1.4 million. Also it brought back a lot of reptiles to the Zoo as the reptile house was flooded in 1959 and there was no significant reptile collection for over three decades.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

To continue to make the Zoo better, they needed an expanded team of zoo professionals. “What I’m most proud of is what we were able to do with staffing,” Taylor reflected. “We added additional curators. When I came we were probably the largest zoo in the country without a full-time veterinarian (we did have excellent consulting veterinarians and we maintained a contract with them even after we hired a full-time veterinarian.) I hired a full-time veterinarian my first year. After awhile we had two full-time vets and four vet teaches. We started doing more research and now they have several student research doings their PhDs. We hired the first registrar. The education department was quite small so we really expanded that program. We used education to create grants and get money to fund programs including what I think is the best overnight safari camp experience in the country. A lot of zoos have outspent Cleveland in capital money for exhibits but I think it has one of the best education departments around and I think we invested wisely in programming.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“We started to require our keepers to have animal experience,” Taylor continued. “We also encouraged them to go to AZA and AAZK conferences and sent them around the world to help with zoo programs. We started doing yearly performance reviews and we held them accountable for their jobs. Now the amount of training that goes into working at a zoo is much more extensive than it used to be. I was never trained- I was just told to learn from others. I remember at the Los Angeles Zoo in the 1970s there was a pencil number under a pipe in each primate cage saying how many scoops of chow and oranges to put in the cages and that was it. Now our keepers are actually animal care professionals. The Rainforest began things getting much better but getting a highly educated staff was very, very important.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The Zoo also evolved into being first and foremost a conservation organization during Steve Taylor’s tenure. “When I came there was no conservation program,” he stated. “They were working with some university contacts but didn’t really make an impact. When Hugh Quinn came to us from Topeka and became our general curator, he wanted to create a conservation department. We hired Dr. Patricia McDaniels out of Saint Louis who did programs in Venezuela. Now the Zoo’s conservation efforts are led by Dr. Kristen Lukas. She came from the Lincoln Park Zoo and started a lot of projects including gorillas in Uganda. She is really involved in conservation of mountain gorillas. We started supporting a lot of projects in Tanzania including Charles Foley’s work with the Tarangire elephants. He has data back thirty years and has worked a lot with human-elephant interactions. We also supported several Asian turtle projects and a project supporting the conservation of the Indian gharial.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Additionally, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo found efficient ways to fund this conservation work. “After Hugh Quinn kept advocating for more funding for conservation, we found a way,” Taylor explained. “Cleveland Metroparks, who runs the Zoo, understood this was part of what a modern zoo is all about and jumped on board. Many the projects are funded by the zoological society. The staff appointments started on a grant and then everyone realized how important it was so Metroparks continued funding full-time and part-time positions to keep these programs going.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

In 1997, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo opened the state-of-the-art Wolf Wilderness. “When I got there, we did a master plan very quickly,” Taylor recalled. “I really wanted to do something for elephants but that took over twenty years. After The Rainforest, we didn’t have a lot of money to do great things and were only able to build something every 4-5 years. We decided to do wolves since that was a relatively inexpensive project and we hoped it would spark continuous interest in the zoo. Wolves helped bring some interest back to the zoo. Also the Zoo hadn’t had wolves in decades so we thought it would be worthwhile to bring them back and tell their story.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“We used Tony Schibley again, who designed The Rainforest, to design Wolf Wilderness on a wooded hillside,” Taylor continued. “It’s a four seasons exhibit and guests view the animals from a trapper’s cabin which gives guest a heated facility in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. It’s a beautiful habitat- the wolves have plenty of space so sometimes you don’t see them.” Visitors might be surprised to find the wolves share the space with beavers, who one would think would be prey to the canines. “We designed it so there’s a pond which the wolves might go into but, if they started chasing the beavers, the beavers can go into their den,” he explained. “There’s native fish in there too and underwater viewing for the beavers.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Wolf Wilderness educates visitors about wolves and their conservation in the hope of breaking the stigma given to the carnivores. “We had a very good video that talked about issues around the reintroduction of wolves and the importance of wolf in an ecosystem,” Taylor elaborated. “The whole storyline is you’re in a trapper’s cabin which has been turned into a station for wolf researchers.” While originally the habitat had gray wolves, it now has the critically endangered Mexican wolves living in it.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Next, Taylor and the Zoo decided to do something about the children’s zoo. “The children’s zoo was really bad,” he recalled. “It just had a little red barn and a lot of concrete. It was all falling apart and there wasn’t much there. We wanted to have some kind of children’s zoo but wanted to do something different. We started as doing a farmyard with an Australian theme but when we realized there was a lot space around it that was really dull so we decided to do a full Australian section.” After looking at Australian areas at the Kansas City Zoo and Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo for inspiration, the area evolved into Australian Adventure featuring both exotic and domesticated animals.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“We did a kangaroo walkabout, a lorikeet aviary and a big space for wallabies,” Taylor stated. “Our commissioners felt that area had to have koalas. I knew they were expensive to feed but they insisted we had to have them. Who was I to argue!” The Zoo is one of only eleven in the nation to have koalas and the species has had reproductive success there. “We also did camel rides to represent how dromedary camels have been released in Australia,” he added. “We have a miniature train that runs through the entire area too.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Great care was put into the theming of Australian Adventure to recreate the environment of the outback. “It’s very heavily themed,” Taylor remarked. “Some people thought we weren’t taking care of the building because they look run down but it really they were intentionally designed to look like old Australian farmhouses. There’s also a huge tree that children can climb with a slide that children can use to leave the tree. We had so many activities in for children and families in Australian Adventure that works really well.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Next, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo built a state-of-the-art medical facility. “We had a donor give us a million dollars to build a hospital so we did one of the better veterinary facilities at any zoo,” Taylor said. “Dr. Lewandowski spent hundreds of hours working with architects to insure its quality. We did an educational component where guests can look into the hospital through three windows. They can see medical treatments, surgeries and X-rays. It’s about 20,000 square feet and we built our safari camp out in front of it.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Steve Taylor believes very strongly zoos should first and foremost be about conserving species. “I think most of us are in the field because we believing saving wildlife and wild places is vital,” he reflected. “Everything we do has to lead to saving wildlife. There is a need for zoos to help with this goal. We do a lot to get people into conservation. We get people to become knowledgeable about animals. People don’t always understand what zoos are doing. Zoos used to breed animals because it was fun to do while now we do it to save species. Zoos are a much better place than they were in the past. They’re raising a lot of money for conservation and replacing older exhibits faster than ever.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“We always have to get better,” he continued. “We’re starting to tell our story better. Now we’re telling stories about what we’re saving. We talk about what we do for gorillas in Uganda and giraffes in Africa. We talk about how the Arabian oryx and the black footed ferret would not be alive today without zoos.” The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is a strong example of a zoo that has transformed in less than three decades into a modern zoo at the forefront of saving wildlife and educating the public. “The support is high in the community for both the Zoo and Metroparks, which is a nice combination,” Taylor said.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Crucial to the ongoing evolution of the Zoo is animal welfare. “Better habitats make things better for the animals,” he explained. “We had a lot of small exhibits in the Primate Cat and Aquatics Complex so we traded out some of the larger species for animals they would be better suited for. We took out a lot an outdated bird house and we replaced the old elephant house. We now have people on our staff solely concerned with animal welfare. We’ve done a lot of studies and the keepers are much more aware of the wellbeing of the animals. When I started there was no enrichment and now they have a great enrichment program. Most of our conferences talk about animal welfare issues and how to improve the lives of the animals in our care.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

A strong testament to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s commitment to animal welfare is the story of Blackie the hippo. “When designing African Elephant Crossing we wanted to have hippos but we realized that would take up a lot of space and money,” Taylor recalled. “We decided not to have hippos in the exhibit but we had Blackie, the oldest hippo in America. He was too old to move and we wanted him to live out the rest of his years in a good space. So we made an extension of the giraffe barn to build a retirement facility for Blackie. Metroparks didn’t care we spent half a million dollars on a facility that would not be visible to the public since it was the right thing to do. Now that Blackie has passed we have turned that into more indoor space for the giraffes.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The capstone project of Steve Taylor’s career was African Elephant Crossing, which was recognized with an award by the AZA. “It’s a good example of how a cold-weather zoo can do elephants well,” he said. “I had wanted to do a new elephant exhibit over all the years I was director. We got CLR Design to design it and the society raised half of the money while Metroparks came through the rest. It was a difficult project since it was a large undertaking and was being built at the front of the Zoo. Also, not having elephants for 2.5 years while we were building it was disappointing for our guests. However, I am very happy with it.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

African Elephant Crossing was built with top-notch facilities, management and husbandry in mind. It has several features that allow the elephants to live the best lives they can at the Zoo. “We have a chute so they can work with the elephants without tranquilizing them,” Taylor stated. “Inside the stalls have sand floors the elephants can sleep on. You can even see what the elephants did at night from a video in the barn. Inside and outside it offers the elephants a lot of opportunities to be healthier and happier. There are three yards outside for them to rotate between. It was all designed for their exercise to make sure they stay fit.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The exhibit is very complexly laid out and designed. “There are so many ways the elephants can get around it,” Taylor elaborated. “Keepers hang up treats on specially designed poles and scatter food throughout the habitats so the elephants are encouraged to keep moving around. The elephants are moving and eating constantly as they would in the wild and you can separate and put them together easily.”

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

“African Elephant Crossing has a lot of flexibility and companionship,” he continued. “During the cooler months, there’s an outdoor area with heat for them to use as well as plenty to do inside. There are huge pools for swimming although African elephants don’t tend to swim as much as Asian elephants. They do regularly use the mud baths. The staff does a lot of behavioral training with them through positive reinforcement and they have a lot of interaction with the keepers. They do blood draws, trunk washes and work on their feet but only when the elephants want to have it done.” While it has the capability of housing a breeding herd, the zoo currently houses a group of older females and an infertile male.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The visitor experience in African Elephant Crossing is stellar as well. “We have a feeder in which they can put a coin in and a biscuit will come out for the elephants to eat,” Taylor remarked. “We have great outdoor viewing often across bodies of water. You can also get up close to the elephants in part of the habitat surrounded by cable fencing. The whole area is heavily themed to look and feel like Africa.” Additionally, the area features meerkats, naked mole rats, African rock pythons and African birds.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

In 2013, Steve Taylor retired from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. “It was time for me to retire and let younger people take over,” he explained. “It was time but I’ve stayed involved with zoos. I often go to the AZA director’s retreats, have consulted with a bunch of zoos and have run eight safaris since I retired.” The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is now directed by Dr. Chris Kuhar who has done a fantastic job at expanding on the conservation missions Taylor started.

@ Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Still the Zoo’s director emeritus, Steve Taylor takes great pride in the zoo he has done so much to revitalize. “Cleveland has a great variety of animals and the conservation and education staff are top notch,” he reflected. “We always could have done more with exhibits but I feel very proud of what we did with conservation and education. They really have a great animal care team and are continuing to replace old habitats. I’m also really proud of the partnership between Cleveland Metroparks and the zoo society. I want to be remembered for being passionate about animals and zoos and caring about the roles of zoos in conservation and education. We took the zoo from a menagerie to a good zoo known for its role in conservation. We won several education and conservation awards and a couple of exhibit awards for our efforts. What we did was significant.”

@ Steve Taylor

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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