Monday, March 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The Las Vegas Zoo (yes, it exists) acquired two animals this year, a leopard and a binturong. The leopard has already gone from arthritic to dead, and the binturong (also know as a bearcat, although it’s related to neither bear nor cat) smells of popcorn and Fritos, as is characteristic of the species. His name is Bruce.
Among the maybe 150 animals, there are also a mountain lion someone abandoned out front one night, an anti-social alligator, the largest collection of swamp wallabies in the country and two malevolent fossas, lemur-slayers who look like the death weasels of Madagascar.
And all of them get harassed, fed and petted by zoo Director Pat Dingle. He is a retired North Las Vegas homicide detective who chain smokes unfiltered short-pack Camels and likes to taunt the zoo’s massive 27-year-old chimp with a singsong chant of “Terry’s a gorilla, Terry’s a gorilla.”
If you know a little bit about male chimpanzees, this might strike you as a bad idea. They’re at least as strong as five men. Long, canine teeth. You may remember, maybe even vividly, three years back when two chimps escaped from a sanctuary outside of Bakersfield, Calif., and attacked a man, ripping off parts he might have wanted to keep and also his nose.
Terry isn’t like that, Dingle says. “There’s no chimp in the world like Terry.”
Dingle kisses Terry through the chain-link fence. Then he goes inside Terry’s cage.
They ride on a swing together. Terry has Dingle chase him around the bamboo grove. And Dingle tickles Terry, who laughs, exposing giant yellow fangs.
“Terry’s a gorilla, Terry’s a gorilla.”
From the outside, the zoo looks like an abandoned roadside attraction, and it’s not on a road you want to stop on.
The stretch of Rancho Drive it sits on, just south of Texas Station, is the dividing line between Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. Other neighborhood attractions are broken bottles, tumbleweed trash and curbside arrests. Outside a house, a boy jumps on a giant trampoline covered in couch cushions he’s beating with a golf club.
The zoo is an adobe- and chain-link-enclosed compound about the size of three football fields. Childlike painting covers some of the walls and bamboo and trees sprout from inside. A sign says it’s “The Diamond of Las Vegas.”
It started with cockatoos.
The birds were Dingle’s hobby and when he left the North Las Vegas Police, he opened an exotic pet store on the site of the zoo. The pet store turned into the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park, also known as the Las Vegas Zoo, which, name aside, is not run by the city. In fact, the city unsuccessfully sued the zoo and has entertained the occasional proposal for bigger “real” zoos, none of which has become a reality.
The nonprofit zoo has gotten along for the past 28 years on animals lent from other zoos, the work of volunteers, donations, the little money that comes in from the gift shop and entrance fees from 45,000 to 50,000 visitors a year — currently $7 a pop for adults, $5 for kids.
The zoo gets by on an annual budget of just less than $500,000, 80 percent of which goes to the animals and upkeep. The rest goes to six employees, including Dingle. The zoo doesn’t belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums because it doesn’t need the help, Dingle says, and can’t afford the membership dues.
When you enter the zoo, you’re greeted by a moving carpet of chickens, peacocks and pigeons flocking in anything but secrecy. The pigeons come to freeload seed and perch on tortoises, leaving predictable results on their shells. There are also pygmy goats bleating from inside the petting zoo.
Every morning when he comes in, Dingle opens the gates and is greeted with a shrieking caterwaul. He returns the salute with, “Mountain lion! Hey, mountain lion!”
“He wants to bite me,” Dingle says. “He has bitten me. Almost everything in here has bitten me,” which is why he doesn’t wear a watch or a wedding ring. He points to scars on his arms and hands. Snags would be bad.
You get an idea why when he goes up to the chain-link-fenced and dirt-bottomed lion cage to greet Midas and Maniac Girl. Midas is the size of a small bull and has enough mane to clothe a couple of golden retrievers. He bats and pounces on a chewed up plastic barrel, knocking it into the fence and making a rumbling sound like an outboard motor on a racing boat.
Dingle pokes his fingers and hands into the cage to tug on the barrel and pet Midas.
“This is our game,” Dingle says. “He wants me to take it away from him. I won’t go inside anymore, but we still play.”
Dingle and zookeeper Tamara Matinata hold hunks of raw chicken up over their heads and against the fence. The lions leap up, standing roughly 8 feet tall, and suck the chicken through the fence, crunching and swallowing the bones.
An audience of Sunday zoo kids watches open-mouthed.
Dingle smiles as he walks through the zoo. “How do you not want to go to work?” he said.
The retired homicide detective is at the zoo most days. His staff, he says, regards him with loving toleration. They even put up with his cell phone’s ring, which he justifies as a nod to his sense of humor and his prior job.
He dials from his desk phone and his cell phone screams like a woman in mortal terror.