I have been visiting and enjoying Las Vegas for three decades now, as I mentioned in the previous column in which we named The Best Martini in Las Vegas, as well as the Best Place to Sit & Sip. So it's always a delight when I find something new to occupy my time.
A few years back the MGM Grand hotel featured a large enclosure with lions -- the company "mascot" dating back to the early film days before the hotel company was spun off. It was a rather spectacular complex with waterfalls and large rocky areas for the lions (and handlers) to scramble and play. Through the center and under this ran a plexiglass tunnel so that visitors could quite literally see the lions from all angles. It was quite the exhibit and attracted tens of thousands of people a month to the MGM complex.
Unfortunately, making the rather dubious decision the hotel would be better served with yet another nightclub, the exhibit was closed and removed, leaving the lions off the payroll. (Disclaimer: I own a negligible number of shares in MGM. Just sayin'.)
What was an unknown to much of the public was the fate of these beautiful beasts, and their handlers.
For several years now I have known of the existence of the Lion Habitat Ranch, a complex at the most southern end of Paradise Valley (the valley Las Vegas inhabits) in Henderson. But until a few weeks ago, and despite repeated suggestions by my wife, we had never made the time nor had the opportunity to visit.
A serious error on our part, and a serious error for anyone who considers themselves an animal lover and particularly having a fondness for the great cats.
Founded by Keith Evans, the ranch was founded in 1989, and began supplying lions to the MGM under a contract which ended in 2012. Since that time the ranch has supported itself through fundraising, admissions and sales of merchandise.
The Habitat is a pretty basic affair. Obviously they use the money to care for the animals rather than build fancy cages or a more modern zoological park. The cages are large and basic, with (thick) chain link being all that separates them from their handlers and the public. The handlers and volunteers are present to answer any questions and want visitors about standing too close to the cage when of the males turns his back (The males are territorial and spray with some frequency. If you do not move quickly enough you may be marked as his property, and it's a long way to a shower.)
(The general advice is when you see an employee move, move with them.)
The lions are clearly well cared for, and cared about. The Habitat protects 46 lions, a handful of birds of varying species and one giraffe, Ozzie, the painting giraffe. (Apparently Ozzie is the only one of the animals required to pay his own way, which he does with a gentle and artistic flair.)
This is a much more up-close and personal experience than simply viewing the cats at a zoo enclosure. It's very much interactive and enjoyable for the visitor, and the cats are happy and healthy. Given the number of males present one thing you will likely experience here and not elsewhere is the hug-huffing and territorial roaring of the males. It becomes a chorus of four or five of them, all sounding off simultaneously. You likely won't get a chance to hear this sort of thing at the local zoo, and it's an impressive moment (this video gives you a taste).
While visiting a zoological facility might not be the first thing you think of in Las Vegas, The Lion Habitat is an excellent option for those afternoons when you're looking to escape the casino and perhaps see something else around town. And if you're a local and haven't visited, get over there immediately. Its a true Las Vegas treasure and needs your support.
The ranch is located a mile or so off Interstate 15, not too far from the M Resort.
THE LION HABITAT RANCH
382 Bruner Ave
Henderson, NV 89044