Let me begin by saying that I find zoos – and all animal cages – a little distressing. I realize that zoos play a vital role in protecting endangered species, and I know that most zoo animals, if they were released into the wild, would probably perish. Still, I find it tough to watch wild animals pace inside wire enclosures. Even zoos as wonderful as those in San Diego or the Bronx, with their multimillion dollar annual operating budgets, tend to creep me out.
Having said all that, I’m happy to report I had a good time when I visited the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park last week. The Park – or Las Vegas Zoo, as it’s called by locals – occupies 3 acres in a residential neighborhood just south of the Texas Station Casino and Hotel. This zoo doesn’t have a $25 million annual operating fund like the Los Angeles Zoo I visited as a child, nor does it have the glamour of Siegfried and Roy’s dolphins and tigers on the Strip. It does have, however, a remarkably eclectic collection of animals that are cared for by a diligent staff.
True, the maintenance of the facility could be improved. Trees are overgrown, some of the exhibits are smaller than I’m comfortable with, and wooden signs point to animals (including tigers, lions and eagles) who shuffled off this mortal coil some time ago. But the kids and adults I saw wandering around loved the place. A sense of caring transcends the obvious lack of abundant funding.
It’s amazing that the Las Vegas Zoo even exists. Just taking care of the nutritional and health needs of so many critters on a daily basis requires a constant flood of cash. I’ve attended enough fundraisers to know that most zoo managers spend a significant chunk of their time raising money to buy food and supplies. There’s often little or nothing left over for cosmetics. In this respect, the Las Vegas Zoo clearly has its priorities straight. The grounds may not be manicured, but the majority of the animals look well cared for.
As I ambled around, I watched a contingent of young people clean the walkways and chat with the animals. I also got to see uniformed zookeepers feed the animals and clean their cages. I got a lot closer to a mountain lion, a couple of river otters and a Barbary ape than I ever could have at a fancy park with moats and “cage-free” exhibits, which put more distance between the animals and the visitors.
The zoo has some rare and endangered animals, including a Turkmenistan caracal (a small cat) and a Bali mynah, a beautiful white bird that is nearly extinct. The zoo also has the only Barbary ape family in the United States. I spent about 20 minutes watching the matriarch of that family scrutinize park visitors. I also enjoyed watching a leopard tortoise and some orange rump agoutis (dog-sized rodents) as they dined on fresh vegetables.
Several of the animals came to Las Vegas from the San Diego Zoo, including a Siberian lynx and a Bornean binturong. I played peek-a-boo with the lynx for a while (he got bored with the game long before I did), and I watched the graceful, tree-dwelling binturong – he looks a little like a small black bear – as he rambled about his enclosure.
Other enclosures housed colorful South American birds, including a very determined green-winged macaw who was diligently removing the wires holding his cage together. An unexpected treat was the chickens – dozens of different kinds – wandering around free. Most had fuzzy families of just-hatched chicks in tow. It’s pretty entertaining to be surrounded by that many chickens, along with peacocks and a noisy variety of other birds.
The reptile house exhibits are too small for my taste, but there is a very active boa constrictor in there along with some other scaly surprises.
My next stop was the petting zoo, where a bunch of pygmy goats were enjoying bossing humans around. I sat under a shade tree near the enclosure and watched “Smokey” the alpha goat face off visitors and try to get through the double access gate. He never quite made it, but he never tired of matching wits and speed with the humans.
While some of the animals at the Las Vegas Zoo are probably not varsity-level zoo animals, they’re here. It takes only an hour or two to see everything, and general admission is less than a couple of Starbucks lattes. This is a hometown park with a friendly, caring atmosphere, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it draws thousands of visitors every year. Next time, I’m going to get there at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. That’s when they feed the 10-foot long alligators.
Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park
1775 N. Rancho Dr.
Open daily: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $8 adults, $6 children ages 2-12 and seniors aged 62 and older, free for children under 2; online coupon available giving $2 off for children with paid adult admission.
The Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park has a very active youth education program. The handouts for school groups are excellent.