A Lion in Summer

Can the Las Vegas Zoo survive? And should it?

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The raven is named Nevermore. He’s 38 years old and has lived 32 of those years here at the Las Vegas Zoo in a cage. He has cataracts.

The fossa, a catlike creature billed as the largest predator on the island of Madagascar, is walking in mad circles around his dish. Around and around and around. The two ostriches—Don and Donna—have nine giant eggs laying on the bare dirt in their pen. The placard says they’re “nomadic creatures” and “the fastest animal(s) on two legs,” capable of running 45 miles per hour. They live in a pen a few yards wide here in the zoo on North Rancho Drive, across from a trailer park, next to a thrift store.

But the latest chapter in the often-dreary saga of the 3-acre Las Vegas Zoo comes into focus at the alligator’s pen. Sweetness, an 11-footer native to wet places, is asleep at the rear of his cage, preparing to die. Or so says the laminated sign I see on his fence.

The city of Las Vegas, the sign explains, has ordered the zoo to stop draining its tiny ponds into the storm gutter, because the tainted water may endanger public health. The zoo will be charged $500 a week if it continues dumping the dirty water.

“We have closed the ponds or face financial ruin,” the sign reads. “It will take approx. 15-20 thousand dollars to build a new alligator exhibit where the drained pond water will irrigate our plants and not kill you … Sweetness can not survive the summer heat without submerging in a clean pond water as he has all these years at the Las Vegas Zoo. It would be tragic if Sweetness had to be buried here as the result of these new enforcement actions by the City of Las Vegas …”

The tone of martyrdom runs through the zoo’s history. Founder and director Pat Dingle, a former homicide detective, has battled criticism about the zoo’s questionable conditions for years. He’s pleaded with the public to donate to the nonprofit zoo, which gets no public funding as zoos in some cities do. It costs $9 to get in, and on this weekday afternoon there’s no one here but me and a couple with a little girl. (She says of the goats, “They’re evil.”)

About two years ago, Dingle squared off with the public, Catholic Charities and the media when a lion died after allegedly eating a ball thrown over the fence from the charity’s thrift store next door. It turned out that the lion had died of cancer, but the P.R. damage was done: A petition or two circulated to close the zoo. Since then, the Humane Society has spoken out against the zoo’s conditions, TV stations have made it an ongoing subject of investigation and OSHA fined it for the humans’ poor working conditions.

Finally, the zoo’s longstanding but threadbare claim to legitimacy, its relationship with the San Diego Zoo, was curtailed. Last August, the San Diego Zoo said it would no longer send animals to the Las Vegas Zoo, and would in fact recall some that it had sent. Dingle told a California TV station, “It was a good 30-year relationship and won’t affect the zoo going forward.”

Perhaps not by itself. But upon walking through the dirt grounds and ramshackle pens, one gets the feeling the growing list of problems is taking its toll, and that the slew of government fees is pushing the zoo to a tipping point.

On the way out, a sign asks patrons to Adopt an Animal for a year, providing its feed and care. Another sign is a donation wish list: folding chairs, benches. When I leave the grounds, it sounds to me like the caged birds are screaming. I think, for a minute, that if Sweetness cannot go on living here, mercy may have a hand in it.