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Vegas, untamed

The desert outpost isn't courting kids anymore, but they can still share in the exotic experience along the Strip. Check out who's draped in fur -- and walking on four legs. It's a creature collection worth gambling on.

March 14, 2004|Steve Friess | Special to The Times

Las Vegas — You've heard about Vegas' wildlife before: the crazy, fast nights and days of blackjack, babes and booze, slot machines right in the airport. Buff men and women swinging from ropes in free street-side entertainment.

So it's understandable that Sin City's other wildlife goes relatively unnoticed.

Despite Las Vegas' much-touted repositioning away from kid-friendly entertainment, the Strip might be considered one of the nation's most exotic zoos. Some of the animals add pizazz to the entertainment; others are there simply to wow the public and promote the casino-hotel's theme. Many are endangered or threatened in the wild.

For the most part, the acts and exhibits in Vegas provide a wholesome -- and surprisingly educational -- bit of counter-programming to Vegas' usual glitz and glitter.

With so much to see and so little time, how do you decide which animal act to see? One weekend in January, I asked 13-year-old Jamie Koch, my Little Brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program here, and his best friend, 14-year-old JoAnna Collins, to decide. They ranked 10 animal offerings from best to worst, largely based on their honest, intangible reactions. But they also had to answer a series of my questions. Was it fun? Unique? Interesting? Did the animals work well with the hotel's theme or add something significant to whatever act they were in? Did the animals seem well-treated? Were there any interactive components to the attraction? As the adult in the group, I also factored in whether it was a good value for the cost and whether the exhibit was educational, although that wasn't a priority. This is, after all, Las Vegas.

No. 1: Shark Reef

Where: Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 632-7800, www.mandalaybay.com. Cost: $14.95 per person, $9.95 for children 5 to 12, free for ages 4 and under. Times: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

What: A dazzling 95,000-square-foot aquarium that houses more than 2,500 animals -- including the recently introduced great hammerhead shark, the only one in a closed-system aquarium in the world and the only one on display in the U.S. The exhibit's largest tank holds 1.3 million gallons of water, the third largest in North America behind ones in Monterey, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. Visitors can wander through two tunnels, which, as JoAnna said, "make you really feel like you're underwater with the fish." Other remarkable exhibits include five of the 12 golden saltwater crocodiles in captivity as well as an Asian water monitor and green sea turtles, all endangered species. Although we didn't see it, general curator Jack Jewell says chainmail-clad divers occasionally feed the sharks by hand. There's a touch pool where you can pet a few horseshoe crabs and bamboo sharks as they swim on by.

What swims: It's impressive that an educational and respectful aquatic wonderland can exist in the middle of this city of faux -- and that 3 million visitors a year are willing to take a break from debauchery to look and learn. The kids were grateful that the self-guided audio guide was brief, featuring relevant tidbits offered up by perky voices. As a result, Jamie and JoAnna listened willingly and walked out excited to tell their mothers, for example, that a school of piranha can chew a whole cow down to its bones in minutes. "That was just awesome," Jamie said as we left.

What sinks: The kids wanted more, but bowing to the limits of space, the Shark Reef has only 14 exhibits. At peak times during midday, visitors can spend as much time waiting to get in as they do inside. Plus, when we were there idiotic patrons -- mostly grown men -- embarrassed the rest of us by grabbing the tails of fish in the touch pool. "You'd think people would show the common sense God gave a goat," the attendant muttered to me. "You'd be wrong."

No. 2: Dolphin Habitat

Where: The Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 791-7111, www.themirage.com. Cost: $12 per person, including admission to the Dolphin Habitat and Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden. Only $6 after 3:30 p.m. Children 10 and under are free with an adult. Times: 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekends and holidays.

What: Ten Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, most of which were bred in the Mirage facility, frolic in four saltwater pools that total 3 million gallons. There's a mercifully brief tour, during which someone basically shows where everything is, including the tunnel from which visitors can look through the tanks at the dolphins. Although the Mirage insists that the animals don't do "tricks," feedings are frequent and the dolphins earn their culinary rewards by flipping and swimming in formations.

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