Lion Habitat Ranch owner Keith Evans plays with a cub as they wait for visitors… (Danielle McCrea )
LAS VEGAS -- A dirt road just outside this desert city ends in chills: 40 caged lions roaring and ready for visitors. But the crowds aren’t coming.
The Lion Habitat Ranch is a sanctuary for big cats, the legacy of the original MGM Grand lion that growls before each feature film. For more than a decade, the wild cats were the main attraction at the MGM Grand Casino's lion habitat, a 5,000-square-foot, glass-encased structure that was closed in 2011 as part of a major renovation.
Before the closure, Keith and Beverly Evans had transported the cats each morning, two at a time, to the casino and returned them to the ranch each night. Now that the felines are laid off, they stay here all day.
“Daddy, this is the most amazing thing,” Serenity Rohrig, 9, said during a recent visit. As she and her father left the park on their way to a mostly empty dirt parking lot, she clutched a photograph of herself with a cub.
The ranch opened its doors to the public in December, but it hasn’t had the audience it has expected or needed. And the Evanses are worried.
“Everybody who comes here loves it,” Keith Evans said. “Our problem is nobody knows we’re here.”
The park, in an undeveloped part of suburban Henderson near the M Casino, is open Friday through Monday. Adult admission is $20, and one child per adult gets in free.
Inside, large cement walkways surround the lions, which are caged in two layers of chain-link fence. People eagerly approach the rails and stare in. Trainer Javier Quezada nuzzles the cats through the fence and tells the crowd their names. He warns them to back away from approaching males, which tend to “spray.”
The audience is enthralled, adults and children alike. There’s smiling and excitement, a bit of consternation. But at noon on a Saturday -- prime time for family outings -- the sidewalks are mostly empty.
When the MGM habitat closed, the hotel made no mention of the Evanses’ ranch. The lions' cages stood empty with a sign reading, “The lions have gone back to the desert.”
Keith Evans wishes MGM officials had been more specific about the lions' location.
It’s not that the Evanses didn’t prepare to care for the lions; Keith Evans made a retirement plan for them decades ago. But that was when he was young, before he hurt his knee and before his wife started to get arthritis. Now he needs a team to help care for them.
There are six full-time and three part-time employees at the ranch, and Evans says he could use a few more. An advertising budget would help too.
“I only have so much money and I’m running out,” he said.
Evans started this business as hobby when he moved to Las Vegas in 1975. He bought a cougar and a leopard and trained them to perform in magic shows, eventually touring internationally. In 1989 he started the gig with MGM and the original MGM lion.
The Evanses love their lions and their work. They’ve got seven new cubs, dozens of healthy males and females and lots of offers to sell. But they refuse. They know how they care for their lions -- the place is spotless, the lions well-fed and healthy -- but they don’t know how the cats would be treated elsewhere.
So they have started a few promotions to attract an audience. “Cub Photos” offers an opportunity to handle a live cub and have a photograph taken, the cub perched on a table with your hand atop its bottom. “Feast with a Beast” puts the visitor in a dine-in cage, hungry lions circling and peering in. There are also “Trainer for a Day,” birthday parties and private tours available throughout the week. The Evanses are determined to keep the lions; they’re just hoping more visitors come along.