It's perfectly understandable that Sin City's real wildlife goes relatively unnoticed amid the circus of party animals and sexy beasts. Yet from the African penguins to the zebra sharks, those critters and creatures are the real deal, as the world rudely discovered in 2003 after the on-stage white-tiger mauling of illusionist Roy Horn and the permanent closure of the "Siegfried & Roy" show. Horn's injury, though sensational, did nothing to diminish the public’s appetite for animal exhibits and acts in town.
Despite Las Vegas' much-touted repositioning away from kid-friendly entertainment, the Las Vegas Strip, taken as a whole, could be considered one of the nation's most exotic zoos. But where to start?
That’s easy: at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, a 95,000-square-foot, two million gallon saltwater tank that houses more than 2,500 colorful fish and reptiles including, per the name, nearly a dozen breeds of sharks. Most awe-inspiring are the two walkway tunnels through the tank, a chance to be enveloped by the aquatic life. Other remarkable exhibits include five of the 12 golden saltwater crocodiles in captivity in the world as well as an Asian water monitor and green sea turtles. Plus, chain mail-clad divers occasionally can be observed feeding the sharks by hand. And a touch pool allows visitors to pet a few bamboo sharks and horseshoe crabs. A mercifully brief audio tour explains the conservation and educational purposes of the attraction.
As strange is it seems that such offerings would exist in the world’s most arid desert, it may be odder still that Shark Reef is only the best of a generally excellent lineup of seafaring attractions on the Strip. The newest is , the $35 million swimming pool area at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, which boasts a 200,000-gallon saltwater tank in the middle of the pool containing 16 species of shark and 250 types of fish. There are no tours, but there is a three-story waterslide to shoot riders in a glass tube through the tank.
“I think Las Vegas is the perfect place for these attractions,” says The Tank’s life sciences manager, Laura Simmons, who notes that the attraction was intended for entertainment, not education. “You want people to be touched by these animals, to take an interest in them. Where better than in Las Vegas, where everybody comes for vacation, to give people a chance to get this close?” In theory The Tank is intended solely for hotel guests but, per Nevada law, the Golden Nugget must admit visitors who say they intend to gamble at the poolside card tables.
Meanwhile, back on the Strip, the at the Mirage is less expansive than Shark Reef but does have a short educational tour to explain the stories behind the six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. This summer, there’s a new addition, a calf born in June that Vegas schoolchildren named Sgt. Pepper, a moniker likely chosen because the same hotel also hosts the Beatles-scored Cirque du Soleil show, “Love.” While Habitat director David Blasko insists there's no "show" and that the animals don't do "tricks," visitors often get to see feedings in which dolphins earn their culinary rewards by flipping and swimming in formation. There’s also a $500-per-person option of being a “Trainer For A Day,” a six-hour program that includes breakfast and a behind-the-scenes experience including scrubbing buckets, thawing fish and learning about the facility’s research.
Next door at Caesars Palace, the twice-daily weekday educational tours beneath the 50,000-gallon horseshoe-shaped saltwater tank at the north end of the Forum Shops mall are free and among the least-known tourist options in Vegas. The tank itself is an impressive sight, a display of more than 500 colorful fish of more than 100 species including zebra sharks and cow-nose rays. This tour includes a chance to hold several animals—starfish and lined seahorses among them — that aren’t actually in the mall-level tank because, says aquarium director Michelle Grisham, they’d get eaten by the other fish. Caesars also has another option for glimpsing marine life, a 1,700-gallon tank with 100 potbellied seahorses at the Seahorse Lounge near the hotel lobby (but children can’t get up close because it’s a bar).
Only one Vegas property is actually named for an animal: the Flamingo Las Vegas. The spindly-legged pink birds idle on manmade islets amid tranquil waterfalls in an area known as the . The birds have company from endangered African penguins, Australian black swans, helmeted guinea fowl and various ducks. The two islands are surrounded by freshwater where colorful koi swim along with 25-pound green-gray grass carp and yellow albino channel catfish for folks to gawk at from footbridges.
If you’re feeling waterlogged, it might be time to head to the Excalibur to catch the equine-intensive, twice-nightly dinner show. While there’s no backstage tours, it’s still the most successful use of animals in a Vegas stage production, with a half-dozen breeds of horses showcased in a rousing 90-minute Camelot era show where viewers sit around an oval arena and eat with their hands while watching the good guys defeat the evildoers. Among the steeds is the big black knight horse — one of about 3,000 Dutch Friesians in the U.S. — ridden by the bad guy.
In terms of big mammals, are the perhaps less successful at the MGM Grand and Siegfried & Roy’s at the Mirage. The famous illusionists have made the latter among the most popular Vegas attractions, but there’s something a bit depressing about seeing their royal white tigers, white lions of Timbavati, Bengal tigers, panthers, an Asian elephant and snow leopards in such small quarters looking so bored. Plus, the Siegfried & Roy-voiced audio tour includes long-winded explanations that usually center around what great conservationists they are. Tourists may be better off getting their fill by enjoying a free viewing of two or three of the white tigers on display 24 hours a day in a habitat near the south entrance of the hotel.
At the MGM Grand, about five African lions at a time loll about inside a 35-foot-tall glass enclosure on display near the casino floor (viewing is free). Usually the cats just sleep, but occasionally they play ball or pace about. Trouble is, the tunnel for visitors to walk through is narrow and short, causing a lot of uncomfortable traffic. And where does it lead? Why, to the gift shop, of course.