My wife and I stand in a glass box, surrounded by lions. The enclosure at the Lion Habitat Ranch near the junction of St. Rose Parkway and Interstate 15 serves as a photo booth for visitors to pose with the cubs, who wrestle each other in a partitioned space, and a dining room for those who want to “Feast with the Beasts.”
As the cubs play, their mother growls and swats at them from the other side of the glass. Keith Evans, a big man whose arms are covered with Tahitian tribal tattoos, leans back in his chair. “Pebbles doesn’t like her babies,” he says. “I guess we won’t be putting them back in with her for a while.”
Evans and his wife, Beverly, have been working with descendants of the MGM roaring lion and other big cats for more than 40 years. They operated the MGM Grand’s lion exhibit until it closed in December, after which they opened their preserve to the public. For $20—kids are free with adult admission—anyone can stroll between large, cyclone-fenced compounds housing 40 adult lions and seven cubs. For those seeking more intensive interactions, the Evanses have a “lion trainer for a day” program. It’s all part of an effort to stay solvent in a Las Vegas where even a 250-pound king of the savanna can’t match a modern nightclub for sensation. But the couple’s devotion to the preserve goes well beyond economics.
How long has it taken to get going out here?
It took about three months to get the licenses. Then we spent the summer fixing up the place so it was ready for corporate parties. We didn’t really open until November. We still get calls wanting to know what happened to the lions. Some of the operators at the [MGM] just put the call through to me. We’ve gone to all the concierges in town and given them cards, and we tell them to sign their name to the back and we’ll give guests a discount. We have gotten no response from any of those cards.
What does it cost you to keep everything going?
It takes $20,000 a month just to feed the 40 adults and seven cubs. Our monthly operating budget is between $50,000 and $60,000. That includes vet fees, salaries [and benefits] for six full-time and three part-time employees, and utilities. We have a retirement fund that pays our salaries and feeds the original MGM cats, but that’s it. I have been talking to the hotel to see if we can modify the agreement. We just need some time to build traffic.
Tell me about your breeding program.
We only have one male who is able to breed at a time. All the other males are given vasectomies. All these cats are descended from the MGM roaring lion, so we breed our male bloodline and find females from unrelated genetic pools.
How well are these cubs doing?
The lionesses are sisters, and both are first-time mothers. After they gave birth, neither of them produced milk. Right now mothering is done by our staff. My wife and I did the first eight weeks, every three hours, 24 hours a day, because they didn’t have mother’s milk, so they didn’t have any antibodies to protect them. So we couldn’t have any outside contact, so it was just her and I.
I understand you contribute to a program to help protect lions in the wild?
We donate to a program to keep the Masai from poisoning the lions. The Masai are worried about their cattle; they use a chemical that kills the lions and everything [in the food chain]. There are trophy hunters from the United States who kill the biggest and best male in the pride, so you have an inferior male that can’t protect the pride. … PETA gives me crap because they don’t believe any animal should be kept in captivity; I’m in 100 percent agreement. If I could, I would put all these animals in the wild where nobody could poach them or shoot them for trophies or poison them. If you can do that, I’m on your side.
So how does your program help?
People can see these animals more humanely—see they’re more than just predators and that they’re something they want to protect. If you fall in love with something, you’re more likely to save it and not want to go out and shoot it. Look, they say in 15 years there won’t be any lions left in the wild.