'Entertainment Capitol', 'Sin City','Lost Wages' or whatever you want to call it, the Las Vegas Strip is a great place to see lions! As a result of my move to Nevada, I now have an opportunity to visit the fabled city on a regular basis. Some of these trips are business trips. Others are for my work with exotic cat/animal owner's groups. Sometimes, I even manage to sneak a day to spend looking at all the things to see in this fascinating city. But, when the business was over, I am usually somewhere watching lions!
We will start with what is perhaps the most visible lion in Las Vegas, the MGM Bronze lion. First a bit of history. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was primarily a hotel chain that happened to own a movie studio in Hollywood. Somewhere along the line, the lion was adopted as their symbol. Not only could it be seen at the start of their films; it prevaded their hotels as well. Somewhere about 10 years ago, MGM decided that their new hotel/casino (Built 1993) needed a grand entranceway. So, they built a huge lion's head with the mouth open. You would enter the building through the mouth. Not long afterwards, the hotel owners discovered that certain nationalities of people were not staying at the hotel. After some investigation, they discovered that an open lion's mouth was bad luck to some cultures. Not wanting a problem, they removed the big lion's head and replaced it with this impressive statue. (Rumor has it the lion's head still exists in someone's private collection.)
The MGM Lion Statue is the largest bronze statue in the Western Hemisphere. It is 45 feet tall and 50 feet long. It weighs 50 tons, and is made up of 1660 pieces of bronze welded together. The sculptor was Snell Johnson, and the designer was M. Smeaton. The statue was installed on February 15, 1997. Here is a Reverse angle view of the statue, and here is a View from across the street. This picture was taken from the deck of the New York, New York hotel/casino, in itself an interesting piece of architecture. The sun conditions were just perfect for this picture. 5 minutes later, the illumination on the lion was totally different.
Inside the MGM Grand is another lion exhibit, this time using the real thing! The MGM Grand Lion Habitat is a fairly new feature, added in July of 1999. It was built to 'Honor the lion, and safeguard it's preservation for future generations'. It is designed to show people the real significance of the animal that symbolizes the MGM Grand. I think they have succeeded.
The Lion Habitat is operated by Keith Evans, a noted exotic feline trainer and conservationist. The lions, which belong to Keith, live on a ranch outside of Las Vegas and are rotated through the exhibit on a daily basis.
Some of the proceeds from operation of the MGM Lion Habitat have gone to help lion conservation projects in the wild. Most notably, money was given to Dr, Craig Packer and the The Lion Research Institute . This institute is undoubtedly the best known lion research project in the world. This money was used to help fund a program to control canine distemper among lions in East Africa.
The habitat is located on the south side of the casino area. If entering from Las Vegas Boulevard, take the stairs going down to the left, to the casino floor. If you see the Rainforest Cafe on your left, you are in the right spot. Now, bear to the right, and follow the walkway. You will soon reach a circular walkway that is outside of the domed area. Keep following this around, and you will eventually see the lion habitat, on the back wall. If entering from the Tropicana Boulevard casino entrance, just turn to the right, and it's right there. If entering through the hotel lobby, follow the signs!
The habitat is approximately three stories tall. There are large plexiglass windows on three sides of the habitat, to allow you to look in. Most notably, a tunnel runs through the habitat, with plexiglass windows on all sides, including the floor! At the back of the tunnel is an area where you can, at certain times, have your picture taken with a lion cub. An additional viewing area was recently opened behind this area, which gives a good view from near the back of the habitat. A TV monitor in there also plays a video about lions. The tunnel continues from there, and leads into the gift shop. The gift shop also has it's own grand entranceway, with gilt iron bar doors.
Within the habitat are three main levels. The lowest level is a deep trench that runs under the observation tunnel. This trench allows lions to walk under the observation tunnel that runs between the two halves of the habitat. Only occasionally have I seen lions use it. The main level consists of a large open area on one side of the observation tunnel, and a smaller area on the other side. It is in the large open area that the lion keepers will usually play with the lions. The third level is a generally upsloping area made of artificial rock which provides plenty of places for lions to rest. There is also a waterfall running down from this level. This level has been aptly named 'Pride Rock'. This upper level also allows access to the top of the observation tunnel, upon which the lions frequently sleep. Although not evident, I suspect the habitat has it's own air handling system, seperate from the smoky casino. It also has skylights, to admit natural light during the day. The habitat was designed by Keith Evans.
Lions are rotated through the habitat on a twice-daily basis. A special loading area behind the habitat allows the lions to be brought in and out with complete privacy and safety. They travel in luxury in a special, air-conditioned truck. Normally, the lions spend most of their time at Keith's ranch outside of Las Vegas. Mr. Evans spares no effort to see to it the lions are well cared for. Employees must meet the educational standards of a professional zookeeper. These people work with the lions their entire life, and therefore have a good relationship with them.
In the habitat, the lions have time alone and with the keepers, who go in with them. Lions of all sizes are brought in, with the big males making the fewest appearences. When the keepers weren't around, the lions spent most of their time on the overhead glass of the observation tunnel. They like this spot very much, because I think they appreciate the attention of the visitors! Lions, being social cats, like to touch each other when they are sleeping. The lions pressed against the plexiglass sometimes had goofy expressions!
The keepers would periodically come into the habitat, always in twos. They would then proceed to entice the lions to play. They never force the lions into anything they didn't want to do. When the lions were sufficiently enticed, the keepers would play games with them, usually using their toy balls. In the midst of this play, the keepers would show the lions lots of affection, and the lions show affection in return. When the lions no longer wanted to play (Beauty rest is important, you know!), they would go back on top of the observation tunnel, and fall asleep. The keepers would stay there for a few minutes, and then leave. One one occasion, I saw the lionesses show their disapproval when the keepers left, even though they were half asleep. There is obviously considerable bonding between the lions and their keepers!
The keepers also feed the lions from time to time. This takes two forms: rawhide chew toys (Which the lions love!), and a commercial prepared feline diet. (They use 'Nebraska' brand feline diet for you lion-keepers out there.) The keepers will take a small piece of the raw hamburger-like food, and hand-feed it to the lions. As they do this, they move around the periphery of the habitat so the visitors can get a good look. Some keepers also would stick the food to the glass so you could see the lion lick it off.
Another recent addition is a peroidic 'lecture' to the people watching the lions. This is presented live by someone standing outside the habitat through the habitat's sound system, and is most likely to happen when a large crowd is present. In addition, recorded lion roars are periodically played through the sound system. But every once in a while, one of the lions will roar, and needless to say the thick glass can hardly contain the sound!
If you plan to visit and take photos, I'll forewarn you that the lighting in the habitat can be quite challenging, even in daytime. To get the pictures I did get, I used 800 speed film, with and without a flash. And, if good faster film was available, it would have helped. At least, the plexiglass is installed at an angle, quite possibly to permit flash photography. I also noticed that people were getting very good shots with digital cameras. This might be one of those places where special qualities of the electronic imager help them significantly outperform film.
The adjoining gift shop is a lion lover's delight. They have lion EVERYTHING! I think I spend more money there than at any other place in Las Vegas! It is also worthwhile to check out the numerous other gift shops in the hotel, as they often had lion items the habitat gift shop does not have.
Admission to the lion habitat is free. The habitat is open daily from 11 AM until 10 PM. So, there is ample time to see the lion habitat after a busy day of business in Las Vegas! You can visit the lion habitat on the web at: http://www.mgmgrand.com/pages_html/entertainment_habitat.asp You can also visit Keith Evan's webiste at www.lionpics.us
Here are some additional photos of the Lion Habitat. The first three pictures were taken inside the Lion Habitat and are courtesy of Keith Evans. (Thanks!)
Staying at the MGM Grand can be overload for a lion lover. I did a quick estimate, and determined that there were at least 4,000 MGM lion logos on the casion floor carpet alone. The MGM lion turns up in the most unexpected places, and it's a lot of fun going around trying to find them. But, there are two lions there worthy of special mention.Lion statue in the hotel lobby
This statue greets people entering the MGM Grand's main lobby. It is one of the few pieces of lifelike lion statuary that you will fins at the MGM Grand. It sits in the middle of the lobby. In addition, three large MGM logos adorn the lobby floor, and are black to contrast the white tiling. There are also brass inserts in the floor at the corner of each tile, with the MGM lion logo on them. There is nothing second class about this place!Fiberoptic lion in the floor of the 'Studio Walk'.
One of the most amazing works of art that used to be in the the MGM Grand were three 'fiberoptic lions' set in the floor just outside one of the shops in the 'Studio Walk'. They have recently disappeared from the hotel itself, only to appear outside the hotel's gift shop at McCarren Airport. These lions are 'wired' with thousands of fiberoptic light pipes. The colors are constantly changing and moving, and it's fascinationg to simply watch them change! Sometimes, they 'shut down', and just the lion's eye is lit. But even that constantly changes. I have no idea who the artist is, but they are totally cool.
Siegfried and Roy are perhaps best known for two things: Their stunning magic show, and their work with big cats. This work goes way back to their first meeting aboard a ship many years ago. They work mainly with tigers and lions, especially the white variety. This page will deal mainly with the white lions, although their white tigers and other cats are very much worth seeing and appreciating!
The Siegfried and Roy show ran for many years in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the show's run ended abruptly on October 7th, 2003 when a tiger severely injured Roy during the course of a performance. Although critics of performing big cats will say that it is an extremely dangerous avocation, many do not realize that Siegfried and Roy have performed 30,000 shows over 40 years without an incident. Few other people who work in 'dangerous' jobs (firefighting, mining,etc.) can boast a safety record like this! In any case, I was fortunate to have seen the show on two occasions.
Lions and tigers were used liberally throughout the show, although the most complex cat handling was done with the tigers. Some of their work with these cats represented the state-of-the-art in cat training. You would see tigers do things in this show you will never see anywhere else! The lions were in more passive roles, although twice they appear in large numbers. Under the stage lighting, the lions are truly snow white!
White lions are very rare in nature and are the result of a recessive gene. It is said in Africa that the sight of a white lion means good luck. And that good luck must be rare indeed, as there had been no confirmed sightings of white lions in the wild-- only occasional unconfirmed reports starting in 1928. That all changed in 1975. In October of that year, lion researcher Chris McBride observed two white cubs born to a pride living in the Timbavati Game Preserve in South Africa. These cubs later were rescued from the wild when their life was threatened by the destabilization of their pride. This was caused by the accidental death of the pride male. These cubs were rescued just days before they would have been killed by the new pride male, or would have starved to death. Incidentially, white lions have been observed only once in the wild since 1975, but are starting to show up more in more in captive lions. You can read the harrowing story of the discovery and rescue of these cubs in Chris Mcbride's books, 'The White Lions of Timbavati' and 'Operation White Lion'. (Reviews of these books and information on locating a copy can be found on my lion books page.)
About the time that Chris McBride's white lions were rescued from the wild, the Johannasburg zoo recieved a male lion from the Timbavati area which was found to be hetrozygous for the white gene. From this male, most of the white lions of the world have come, including Siegfried and Roy's lions, and zoo lions in Toronto, Ontairo; Cincinatti, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Germany and Japan. Only a handful of white lions, mostly in private hands, are descendants of Chris McBride's lions.
Siegfried and Roy became involved with white lions in 1994, after their work with white tigers had recieved worldwide attention. As a result of an agreement between Siegfried and Roy, and the Johannseburg Zoological Gardens, a white lioness, and a male with the white gene, both young cubs, were brought to the United States. At that time, only 10 white lions existed in the world. As a result of a carefully managed breeding program, the white lions in the world now number well over 25. Part of this breeding program involves breeding the white lions back to normal-colored lions to increase their genetic diversity. Although this reduces the reproduction rate of the white lions, it ensures their survival well into the future. (This is also practiced with the white tigers.)
With the overwhelming success of the magic show, Siegfried and Roy arranged to have a cat sanctuary built at the Mirage Hotel, where their show was located. Opened in 1996, this sanctuary is known as 'The Secret Garden of Siegfried and Roy'. It is home to a variety of cats, including white lions, withe tigers, leopards and an elephant. Not all the cats are kept here. The rest live in Siegfried and Roy's private sanctuary, 'Little Bavaria', outside of Las Vegas.
Unlike other hotel/casions I was in at Las Vegas, the Mirage is easy to find your way around in. Just come in the front entranceway via the motorized walkway, and follow the overhead signs. Admission is charged, I believe it is currently $10. When you first enter the sanctuary, you will be taken on a guided tour as far as the dolphin pool. (The dolphin pool is not part of the secret garden, but admission includes both exhibits.) After that point, you are free to leave the tour if you wish and proceed direct to the secret garden, which has it's own entrance from dolphin pool area. (One very interesting thing in the dolphin pool area is a window into the water maintenance plant, where you can see the substantial apparatus needed to maintain the artificial ocean enviroment. It is my understanding that this is the largest such plant in the United States.)
When I visited, there were two white lions on display in the Secret Garden. (There may have been a third I didn't see.) The male there was Mystery. The female was either 'Sarmoti' or 'Hope'. Note that in sunlight, they don't look quite so white. Note however, that Mystery's mane is indeed pure white! (Again, I apologize for the quality of the pictures. The focus did come out good, especially on the female, due to the fence. Better pictures coming soon!) Here is a dark, but majestic picture of Mystery and a different picture of the lioness.
As an added treat, I ended up talking to one of the cat keepers for nearly half an hour. I learned a great deal about the lions and other cats that isn't normally brought up in a public forum!
I took time to see all the animals in the Secret Garden. It is truly a remarkable collection. It is also very peaceful there, something you can't say about much of Las Vegs. Definitely add this relatively inexpensive stop to your itinerary! (The Secret Garden remains open, despite the permanent cancellation of the show. Current plans are to keep it open.)
There is a gift shop in the Secret Garden, as well as one in the entrance area of the hotel. Both are similarly stocked, but the one in the Secret Garden is better. Again, I bought a lot of white lion stuff at both shops! You can learn more about Siegfried and Roy, as well as their work with white lions (And other cats) at: www.siegfriedandroy-sarmoti.com
As mentioned earlier, a number of Siegfried and Roy's white lions have been placed in zoos around North America to aid in conservation breeding. As they are pureblood South African lions (Panthera leo krugeri), they are eligible to be included in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's (AZA) lion species survival plan, and will therefore be bred with other lions.
In the summer of 2003, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the two beautiful white lionesses at the Cincinnatti Zoo. In addition, we were taken to an off-exhibit area where we were allowed to meet the white male lions up close and personal! (They alternate males and females on exhibit on different days.) Needless to say, not only were they magnificent, but they had great personalities because of their loving upbringing! White lions are truly special animals!
Just south of the Treause Island hotel/casino on Las Vegas Boulevard (And a short distance north of the Mirage), on the west side is a large statue commerating the work of Siegfried and Roy. The unique part of ths statue is a huge lion's head that forms the base. The lion's head is a very popular place for photographs! The statue is also brightly lit at night. (For scale purposes, I am six foot 0 inches tall. The top of my head is about even with the lion's eyes.)
There is a lion statue in front of the Circus Circus hotel/casino. This is a ways north of the aforementioned exhibits on Las Vegas Boulevard. The lion is one of several statues right out on the street. It's a bit on the crude side, and a big post holds up one of the paws in a sort of swiping pose. It looks like it's been painted numerous times. One of these times, I'm going to get a picture of it.
If you want to get away from the 'strip' for a while, check out the Las Vegas Zoo. Las Vegas does have a small zoo (3 acres) not too far away from 'Downtown'. The easy way to get there is to take the 95 north exit from Las Vegas Boulevard just north of the 'downtown' casino area. Get off at the Rancho Drive exit (about a mile), and turn right (northwest) onto Rancho drive. The zoo is at 1775 North Rancho Drive. It's on the left side, and very hard to miss. Parking can be had off the street just past the zoo, in the back. (Follow the signs.)
The zoo has two lions, a male named 'Midas' and a female named M.G. (Maniac Girl). Although they have a rather small enclosure, it is nicely done, and the zoo staff loves them to pieces. In addition to the lions, the zoo will soon feature an Indochinese tiger, and a Fossa (predator from Madagascar). They also have quite a collection of birds, including ostriches you can walk right up to! You can learn more about the zoo at www.lasvegaszoo.org.