Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2018

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Could Las Vegas support a world-class zoo? This group believes so

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Leila Navidi

Zookeeper Tamara Matinata feeds raw chicken to sibling lions Maniac Girl, left, and Midas at the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park in Las Vegas.

Amid the excitement surrounding potential new stadiums, arenas and art museums, some locals want Las Vegas to get a different kind of venue.

During the past few years, members of the nonprofit Las Vegas Zoological Society have been quietly laying the groundwork for a world-class zoo. Their mission: “to inspire education and conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature.” Unlike zoos of the past, this one would have a focus on “animal care, science, education and conservation.”

A “motor safari ride” would ferry visitors around the planed 100-acre park, which would offer 16 exhibits featuring 900 animals from 300 species. The conceptual site plan shows exhibits grouped by region (Nevada, Africa, Asia), along with a botanical garden, children’s zoo, aviary, amphitheater and aquatic exhibit.

Conservation and education plans are no less ambitious. The Zoological Society would offer a college preparatory program for high school students; a kids’ Safari Camp; a public zoo library; workshops and classes; and a weekly TV show called Wild Zone. A conservation center would include fieldwork and research opportunities with a “long-term focus on animal well-being.”

So what’s the timeline? It’s too soon to say.

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A sign at the entrance proclaims the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park as "The Diamond of Las Vegas."

The Zoological Society has a website and a Facebook page, and is actively taking donations, with a proposed budget of nearly $250 million. The group declined an interview because the project is in such an early stage.

This is not the first or only effort to keep wild animals in Las Vegas. While the Las Vegas Zoological Society would stand out as a major zoo, minor animal attractions are scattered across Las Vegas. Many resorts keep animal habitats: The Mirage has dolphins and white tigers; the Flamingo has exotic birds (including a flock of Chilean flamingos). Large aquariums can be found at Golden Nugget, Mandalay Bay, Silverton and Forum Shops.

On the outskirts of town, there’s the Lion Habitat Ranch and the Bonnie Springs Ranch Petting Zoo, which keeps Australian emus, wallabies, peacocks, ducks, burros and an African serval.

The defunct Southern Nevada Zoological Botanical Park serves as a cautionary tale for aspiring zookeepers. The brainchild of a late North Las Vegas homicide detective, it started as a pet store and grew into a three-acre zoo, with approximately 150 animals at its peak.

Due to shoddy operations, the non-accredited zoo was a frequent target of PETA and concerned locals, Yelpers described it as “depressing,” “pathetic” and “the San Quentin of zoos.” Its exterior resembled “an abandoned roadside attraction,” according to a 2008 Las Vegas Sun feature.

The zoo was cited by the USDA for violations of the care and treatment of their animals, which included Barbary apes and wallabies. After multiple problems, federal removal of animals and staff walkouts, the zoo closed in 2013.

The Las Vegas Zoological Society describes itself as “night and day” different from the shuttered zoo. With plans to join and seek accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, officials say it is set to take a completely different path than its predecessor.

The association’s mission is to “provide its members with the services, high standards, best practices, and program coordination to be leaders in animal welfare, public engagement, and the conservation of species.”

The Las Vegas Zoological Society plans to implement the association’s best practices throughout the planning and development process. Similar to how the Reynolds family built The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Zoological Society will not proceed with construction until the budget is fully allocated. They don’t want to build a half zoo.

Additionally, the new zoo would have to go through an official city or county development process, depending on where it ends up.

“Certainly they would be keeping wild animals; that requires more [approvals] than say a retail store,” said Jace Radke, a Las Vegas spokesman. “We can’t really be specific as to what would be required until the zoo decides to come to the city and apply for all the various things that it would need, including business licenses, zoning, building permits, filing of plans, etc.”

With a similar footprint and climate, the Phoenix Zoo is a great model for what an accredited zoo in Las Vegas could be. Indeed, Las Vegas Zoological Society board members plan to visit the Phoenix Zoo as part of the planning process. The Arizona zoo’s annual budget is about $28 million, and last year it drew close to 1.5 million visitors.

“It’s the most visited spot other than the Grand Canyon,” says Bert Castro, president and CEO of the Phoenix Zoo.

The Phoenix Zoo works with the arid climate by keeping warm-weather animals (so no polar bears). All animals have indoor access during the hot months. And public visiting hours during the summer are 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. to avoid the heat of the afternoon.

“Zoos can be a benefit to the community, not only a great cultural aspect, but also a place to learn and build understanding about wildlife issues,” Castro says. "This matches up with the goals of the Las Vegas Zoological Society."

The key to success is inspiring the passion of the community and forming relationships, according to the lifelong zookeeper. As a nonprofit, his zoo relies on community support. More than 40,000 households or a little over 200,000 members participate in its membership program, and 70 percent of visitors are locals. A Nevada zoo would likely have the opposite tourist-to-local ratio.

“It sounds like they’re trying to do it the right way,” Castro says. “I wish them the best of luck.”