You can have a feast with a beast at the Lion Habitat Ranch
Sunday, December 29, 2013
I’ve fallen in love….again. Last week, I made my first visit to the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, NV. I had read about the ranch a year ago. Finally, I made plans to visit. Planning was essential because of the habitat’s current restricted hours: Friday through Monday, from 11:00 a.m. till 2:00 p.m. As the attached video shows, I loved my visit. The Lion Habitat Ranch is now on my “must visit” list for friends and visitors to the Las Vegas area.
Finding the ranch, however, isn’t easy. Advertising and signage money just isn’t yet available. I drove west on St. Rose Parkway to the M resort in Henderson, made a U-turn at the M and then headed east on St. Rose Parkway staying in the right-hand lane. About a block east of the M, a small Lion Habitat sign directed me to the Bruner Ave. turnoff that goes about a quarter mile to the ranch. (You can also turn from St. Rose onto Bermuda Ave. and get to the ranch, but you must cross the busy parkway without the aid of a stoplight, so I prefer my route.)
The ranch has a large convenient parking area. I walked to the ticket window, paid a $20 entry fee (various discounts are available for children, locals, etc.), signed a waiver that said basically I knew wild animals could be dangerous and walked in. What I found was a huge, well-kept complex of large steel enclosures and lots of magnificent animals — lions (some 50 of them live at the ranch), a tiger, three ostriches and a number of birds. The ranch is operated by a company called The Cat House, Inc. owned by Keith Evans and his wife, Beverly. Evans originally came to Las Vegas in 1974 and brought his lions here a year later. Part of his Las Vegas experience has been with the MGM Grand, first doing cub photos in Studio Walk, Starlane and the theme park and finally working with the MGM Lion Habitat (which Evans designed). Evans supplied lions to the MGM Lion Habitat for 11 years until the habitat closed in January, 2012.
Few people realized the ranch existed until it opened to the public a year ago. The money from visitor fees is used to feed and care for the animals and support the 11-person staff.
Although the visitor volume doesn’t yet pay all the bills (animal food costs alone are more than $20,000 a month), Evans’ hope ultimately is that the ranch will be self-sustaining and can be carried on even after his lifetime. In the meantime, Evans personally supervises visitor interactions with cubs, feeds a number of the animals, never takes a vacation and answers the habitat phone. His wife appears with Evans in online videos at the Lion Habitat Ranch website and is as emotionally involved with the animals as her husband. They’ve been married 24 years, having met when Beverly wanted a souvenir photo with one of Evans’ lions. She says she figured any man who was so kind to animals would be kind to her “and that’s been the case,” she says. Today, Beverly has the skills of a trainer and acts as an information resource for visitors. She also offers some of her knitting handiwork for sale to visitors.
Word about the ranch is gradually getting around. A week ago, a local tour company began bringing visitors to the ranch. A number of international visitors have come to the Las Vegas area specifically to visit the ranch.
Special activities offered at the ranch include “interacting” (playing, feeding, petting, etc.) with lion cubs. The ranch currently has four 10-week-old lion cubs that are available for display. The $200 cost of a six-minute interaction with the cubs is eagerly paid by folks who feel that playing with lion cubs is an experience they might never otherwise have in a lifetime. As the cubs get bigger, we’re told, they will eventually be posing for photos; visitors will pay for an 8′ by 10′ souvenir photo with a lion. Other special activities include the opportunity to have a picnic or cocktail party at the complex with animals all around or to become an animal keeper or trainer for a day. Private tours during “off” days are also available.
A man who has worked with the lions for seven years is Brian Rounds who cared for the Ringling Bros. Circus elephants before coming to the habitat. He says he absolutely loves working with the big cats and can’t imagine doing anything else. He confirms that big cats, like smaller ones, have different distinct personalities (and yes, he prefers working with the cats, rather than the elephants…but don’t tell the elephants).
Because Evans has lots of ideas for the future that cost money, he is looking to turn the ranch into a not-for-profit entity in order to attract significant financial donors. “We are not-for-profit now,” he says with a smile, “but that’s not on purpose”. He wants the world to appreciate the wonderful animals that he has so carefully nurtured. (Lions in captivity live two to three times as long as lions in the wild.)
Lions at the ranch are admittedly spoiled, says Evans. “We raise them from infancy and hand-feed them. They accept us in their pride, and that, I have always felt, is a privilege.”