Las Vegas Sun

July 16, 2019

Currently: 101° — Complete forecast

The lion sleeps tonight in Southern Nevada — and so do many other exotic animals

We don’t have a zoo, but you can still find tigers, sharks, zebras and more nearby

Lion habitat ranch

Mikayla Whitmore

The Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson.

Our desert teems with life — maybe more than you think.

Of course, there are the bighorn sheep that roam Boulder City and the jackrabbits that pop out of suburban bushes. But there also are hundreds of species of exotic mammals, reptiles, fish and birds that have found homes in Southern Nevada.

Within an hour’s drive of Las Vegas, you can see lions, tigers and bearcats (oh my!), dolphins, sharks, monkeys, tigers, zebras, otters and more — even though the valley has no zoo.

How did such exotic animals end up here? Who cares for them? And how do they survive in the desert?

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The lions can escape Nevada’s extreme temperatures by entering den boxes outfitted with swamp coolers for summer and heaters for winter. The animals also have toys to play with and platforms to jump onto to keep them entertained.

Lion Habitat Ranch

382 Bruner Ave., Henderson

702-595-6666,, opened in 2012

Summer hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday through Monday

Winter hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday through Monday

Cost: Locals, seniors and military, fire and police with ID, $20 (includes one child 4-14 years old per adult); extra child, $8; local family, $50; children 3 and under, free

A dozen or so people gather near one side of the plexiglass. Owner Keith Evans and his wife Beverly have their backs pressed up against the other side, inside the enclosure. Between them lies a pile of meat. Laying on the Evans’ legs are five baby lion cubs. Their mom, Pebbels, sits patiently to Keith’s left, gnawing on a rawhide bone that Keith holds.

“You have to have a bond with the mother to do that,” said Evans, who has raised most of the 49 lions at Lion Habitat Ranch, including Pebbels, from birth.

Evans and his wife know their animals well, but they still pay attention to Pebbels’ every move when they’re inside the enclosure. In fact, they videotape feedings so in case anything goes wrong, they can examine what happened.

“I’m convinced my animals are content,” said Keith Evans, who has worked with big cats for 45 years. “Otherwise, they’d kill you.”

Discouraging lion killings

The ranch received nonprofit status a little over a year ago but only a few people have made donations, Evans said. In March and April, ticket sales were higher than normal, and the ranch came close to breaking even. Business has increased every year, said Evans, 68, who covers expenses with his retirement account.

“We want people to fall in love with animals,” Evans said. “Then people can say maybe this isn’t a predator we need to kill. We raise ours to help the species survive.”

Just this month, a 13-year-old lion named Cecil, who had been studied by the University of Oxford since 2008, was lured from a sanctuary in a national park in Zimbabwe, only to be shot and killed by an American dentist from Minneapolis.

Evans hopes that by teaching the public about his lions, he can discourage such killings.

“Sadly, being in the wild is more dangerous for lions’ survival, even if they are in a reserve as Cecil was,” Evans said. “We offer guests the chance to see our interactions with our lions to demonstrate that lions are not killers that are OK to shoot. We want you to make the connection to lions so you will protect them everywhere.”

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The aquarium contains 1.6 million gallons of water in multiple tanks.

Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay

3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

702-632-4555,, opened in 2000

Summer hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (May 24-Sept. 1)

Regular hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (last admission one hour prior to close)

Cost: For locals — adults, $15; children 5-12, $10; children 4 and under, free

The Shark Reef Aquarium is home to more than 2,000 animals and 100 species, including sharks, green sea turtles, komodo dragons, golden crocodiles, stingrays, pufferfish and an octopus.

How the sharks are fed

Shark Reef is home to about 45 sharks, which staffers feed individually three times a week. “Sharks are actually quite finicky,” Aquarium Director Adrienne Rowland said. “Some animals are more aggressive than others, so we have to make sure each shark gets to eat.” Staffers stand above the tank and feed the sharks by throwing fish to them. Divers never enter the water during mealtime because they don’t want the sharks to associate humans with eating.

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The Secret Garden has 21 cats, although only a few are on display in the garden’s six enclosures at any given time.

The Mirage’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat

3400 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

702-791-7188, opened in 1990

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Cost: Adults, $19.95; children 4-12, $14.95; children 3 and under, free

The Secret Garden staff is hands-on with every animal.

“We interact with our cats every day, so as they’re growing up, we see their personalities,” said John Molnar, an animal supervisor who has worked with Siegfried & Roy for more than 20 years. “We’ll play tug-of-war with palm fronds or games we’ve played with them as they’re little.”

The young lions, for instance, are going through “lion puberty” right now, losing their baby teeth and growing their manes, and probably will start jockeying for positions soon, Molnar said.

The staff works with them every day to get them used to trusting humans.

“We want to give people a chance to see us interact with them and see them in a calmer state,” Molnar said. “The hope is they’ll have that bond with them and then want to go out and help protect their natural habitats.”

Some of the animals — including 19-year-old Pride and 18-year-old Quest, both male white lions — used to perform in the Siegfried & Roy show, which ended in 2003. Other animals came to the garden more recently, including three 15-month-old white lions from Johannesburg, and Shadow, a 7-year-old black leopard from Oregon.

Dolphin Habitat

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Dolphin pools hold a combined 2.2 million gallons of water.

The Dolphin Habitat’s 10 dolphins live in three main pools. The public can walk around the edges of the pools to see the dolphins or watch them from an underwater viewing area.

One of the habitat’s main missions is education. Steve Wynn opened the attraction because he thought most children in the valley would never otherwise have a chance to see dolphins, said David Blasko, director of the Mirage’s animal care department.

The dolphins also participate in studies aimed at helping dolphins in the wild. For instance, the habitat helped the U.S. Navy gather data on dolphins’ breathing capacity.

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Some of the aquarium’s more notable species include the honeycomb ray, porcupine pufferfish, leopard shark and Moorish idol. If you’ve seen “Finding Nemo,” Gill was a Moorish idol.

Silverton Aquarium

3333 Blue Diamond Road, Las Vegas

702-263-7777,, opened in 2004

Hours: Open 24/7

Cost: Free

The 117,000-gallon saltwater tank houses about 1,000 fish, including three species of stingrays, four species of sharks and more than 100 species of fish.

The hardest thing about running an aquarium, curator Ryan Ross said, is making sure all the animals get along, since the fish come from different parts of the world. It’s usually the fish — not the sharks or other species — that get sent to the back of the house for a timeout in the “troublemaker” tank, Ross said.

“People look at the stingrays and think they’re the dangerous ones,” Ross said. “In the wild, they’re on top of the food chain. But at the aquarium, the fish pick on them.”

While most of the fish live in the main tank, the aquarium keeps tanks in the back for fish that have shown signs of aggression, new fish going through quarantine or fish too small to be in the main tank.

The tank features live, synchronized swimming performances by “mermaids” Thursday through Sunday.

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The 5-acre Wildlife Habitat includes about 400 fish, 80 birds and 30 turtles, including Chilean flamingos, sacred ibises, California brown pelicans, hooded mergansers, water turtles, Japanese koi and albino catfish.

Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo

3555 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas

702-733-3349, opened in 1995

Hours: Open 24/7; pelican feedings twice a day at 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Flamingo Island is home to 11 Chilean flamingos and two African sacred ibises, 22-year-old Isis and 11-year-old Pinocchio, who Lead Wildlife Specialist Jackie Liptak says has a “short man complex.” The ibises are carnivores that eat mainly insects and fish, while the flamingos feast on krill.

The island has misters for summer and heaters for winter to ensure the birds are comfortable year round.

Many species of fish and turtles populate the water, including grass carp, albino channel catfish and paddlefish. In winter, the turtles dive under the water to hibernate; many of the fish slow down and hang out at the bottom of the pond. The turtles mainly eat fish, lettuce and mealworms, while the fish dine on kibble or algae, depending on the species.

Some of the birds have been known to make friends across species lines. One of the habitat’s cinnamon teals, a kind of duck found in North and South America, chooses a different Mallard duck “girlfriend” every so often, Liptak said. “The birds are all one big happy family,” she said. “We have a lot of gay and lesbian couples and a lot of interspecies pairs. Love is love.”

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Some of the birds live in smaller, outdoor aviaries with birds of the same species. Others, like the macaws, live together in a larger room. “Parrots need to be around other parrots,” interim director Christina Salamone said. “They need to groom each other and care for each other. When they come in, adjusting is a slow process. Some are scared to death.”

Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary

8103 Racel St, Las Vegas

702-645-4224,, opened in 1970

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Monday; Tuesday and Wednesday by appointment only

Cost: Adults, $4; children 2-12, $2; children 2 and under, free; active military with ID, free

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To combat the desert temperatures, the outside birds’ cages are equipped with misters for the summer and heaters for the winter. Other birds, like the cockatoos, remain indoors in an air-conditioned room. The larger animals have shaded areas they can retreat to, misters or both.

The sanctuary provides a home for about 900 birds that have no other place to go. Some of the birds arrive after their owners die; certain birds can live as long as humans, well into their 70s or 80s. Others come because their owners decide keeping birds is too difficult.

“People don’t understand how much work they are,” interim director Christina Salamone said. “Birds are very destructive, and they can be escape artists.”

The sanctuary is building a flight aviary, and owners want to expand the barnyard habitats and create a pasture for the grazing animals. The grounds also include an amphitheater, where owners hope to hold more festival-type events.

Bonnie Springs Ranch Petting Zoo

16395 Bonnie Springs Road, Las Vegas

702-875-4191,, opened in 1952

Summer hours: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Winter hours: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Cost: Monday and Tuesday — adults and children, $7; Wednesday through Sunday — adults, $10; children, $7

Visitors to Bonnie Springs Zoo must mind their step. There’s an open petting zoo at the heart of the property, which means animals almost always are underfoot. Vader, a sulcata tortoise, wanders freely and often crawls up to visitors. Children and their parents can buy handfuls of compressed hay pellets to feed to goats, deer, sheep, chickens, miniature horses and mules.

“If you teach these kids about animals at a young age, my hope is that you’ll teach them to live greener and to make the world a better place for wild animals,” said Richard Macauley, who was the zoo’s manager for over a year. “I want to make it so the snow leopards can actually live in the wild.”

Exotic animals — Canadian lynxes, wallabies, white-nosed coatimundi and Patagonian cavies — live in enclosures around the petting zoo. Other enclosures near the outskirts of the property hold miniature horses, donkeys, goats, pigs and emus.

Sunday is animal enrichment day, which means staffers deliver toys to stimulate the animals mentally. The wolf and wolf hybrid, for instance, receive cardboard boxes filled with newspaper and chicken. Tearing open the boxes is supposed to simulate ripping into a carcass.

Some of the animals are well-suited to living in a desert and naturally can withstand Nevada’s extreme temperatures. Others, however, have covered enclosures equipped with misters and water to play in. The animals also are routinely given ice packs to ensure they stay cool.

The staff includes four full-time zookeepers, one part-time zookeeper and a few volunteers.

“If you’ve seen the movie ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ it’s like that,” Macauley said. “The staff genuinely care. It can be 20 degrees or 112 degrees, and we’re all out here.”


746 Snowden Ranch Road, Moapa

702-467-3585,, opened in 2006

Hours: Currently open only for private tours; owners hope to reopen to the public in fall

Cost: $300 for up to 25 people;

$10 for each additional person

Survival by donations

The zoo has been closed to the public since the county shut it down in January 2014, after inspectors found several violations, although none had to do with animal care. The zoo is in the process of fixing what the county asked for, including installing a new septic system and making sure the attraction is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The zoo is allowed to host private tours and bring its animals to private events, but that doesn’t pay the bills, Holt said. If all goes well, the zoo will reopen to the public this fall.

“We’re broke, beyond broke,” she said. “Employees have had to not take paychecks some months. We’re going day to day. But if it wasn’t for a few of our donors, we’d have closed a long time ago. We were between a rock and a hard place, but our donors have helped us incredibly.”

If you would like to help, visit

Coping with the climate

Roos-n-More, spread across 3 acres, houses more than 300 animals and about 100 species. Its animals hail from almost every continent, which means each enclosure must have several climate-control measures, depending on the animal. Misters, shaded areas, fans and air-conditioned rooms keep the animals cool in summer, while heaters warm them in winter. Some of the animals are well-suited to desert life, including Jellybean the fennec fox. Fennec foxes, which normally live in the Sahara desert, have fur on the bottom of their feet to protect them from hot sand, and large ears that help keep their bodies cool. Sayyid — a Bactrian camel, which hails from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia — can withstand temperatures anywhere from freezing to 120 degrees.

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