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[View pictures of Jamie on the Big Brother page]

March 14, 2004 and March 21, 2004

Rating Vegas' Other Wildlife

From birds to beasts, it's a jungle out there

By Steve Friess

LAS VEGAS -- Yeah, yeah, yeah. We've heard it all before about Vegas--the crazy, fast nights and days of blackjack, babes and booze. It's understandable, then, that Sin City's other wildlife goes relatively unnoticed amid the hordes of party animals and sexy beasts. In this fantastical city like no other, those white tigers, pink flamingos and great hammerhead sharks somehow blend unfortunately into that bizarre background as if they're as much a mirage as the fake Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower.

Ahh, but from the African penguins to the singing parrots to the lined seahorses, those critters and creatures are the real deal--as the world rudely discovered after the on-stage white-tiger mauling in October of illusionist Roy Horn and the permanent closure of the "Siegfried & Roy" show. Horn's injury, though sensational and highly publicized, did nothing to dampen the pace of animal exhibits and acts in town if only because few of the others involved human interaction with anything quite so dangerous.

Indeed, 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. Some of the animals are used to add exclamation points to the entertainment while others are there just to wow the public and fit into a hotel's theme. These acts and exhibits, for the most part, provide a wholesome--and, surprisingly, often educational--bit of counterprogramming for thousands of adults who drag their children along on their Vegas vacations. But from the kid's-eye view, what roars and what bites? With so much to see and so little time away from the craps table and the pool, how to decide what to do?

One weekend earlier this winter, I asked 13-year-old Jamie Koch and 14-year-old JoAnna Collins to be the judges. Jamie's my Little Brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program here in Las Vegas, and JoAnna is his best friend.

They ranked 10 animal offerings from best to worst based largely on their honest, intangible, incalculable reactions but also by answering a series of my questions: Was it fun? Was it unique? Was it interesting? Did the animals work well with the hotel's theme or add something significant to whatever act it was in? Did the animals seem well treated? Were there any interactive components to the attraction?

As the adult, I also factored in whether it was a good value for the cost and whether the exhibit was educational, although that wasn't a major priority because this is, after all, Las Vegas.

1. SHARK REEF

Where: Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: $14.95 ($10.95 Nevada residents), $9.95 for children 5-12, kids under 4 free.

Times: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

What: A dazzling 95,000-square-foot aquarium that houses more than 2,500 fish and reptiles--including the recent introduction of the great hammerhead shark, the only one in a closed-system aquarium in the world and the only one on display in the U.S. Its residence is a 1.3-million-gallon tank, the third largest in North America. Visitors can wander through two tunnels that, as JoAnna said, "make you really feel like you're underwater with the fish." Other remarkable exhibits include 5 of the 12 golden saltwater crocodiles in captivity in the world as well as an Asian water monitor and green sea turtles, all of which are endangered species. Although we didn't see it, general curator Jack Jewell said chain-mail-clad divers occasionally can be observed feeding the sharks by hand. There's a touch pool where you can pet a few bamboo sharks and horseshoe crabs as they swim on by. Shark Reef is the only Nevada facility accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

What swims: It's simply 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 study break from debauchery to look and learn. The kids were grateful that the self-guided audio guide was mercifully brief, featuring relevant informational tidbits offered up by perky voices. As a result, Jamie and JoAnna listened willingly and walked out excited to tell their mothers, for instance, that a piranha can chew a whole cow down to its bones in minutes and that a great hammerhead shark always swims on a 70-degree angle for no apparent reason. "That was just awesome," Jamie said as we left.

What sinks: The kids wanted more, but bowing to the limits of space and the attention spans of Vegas visitors, the Shark Reef has only 14 exhibits. The billboards cleverly suggest you "Kill an hour or two" here, but the lower end of that range is more than enough. Also, at peak times during mid-day, visitors can spend as much time in the line waiting to get in as they need inside. Plus, idiot patrons--mostly grown men--embarrass the rest of us humans by thinking it appropriate to grab the tails of fish in the touch pool until reprimanded by an attendant. "You'd think people would show the common sense God gave a goat," the attendant muttered to me. "You'd be wrong."

Fun fact: No animals in Shark Reef have names. "Names are used for pets," Jewell said. "Our animals are not our pets. They're wild animals; we treat them with respect."

Also notable: A 12,000-gallon aquarium housing 200 fish from 40 species (including three bonnet-head sharks) in the hotel's lobby is free 24 hours a day.

2. DOLPHIN HABITAT

Where: The Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: $12 (includes admission to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden--see below), only $6 on Wednesday and after the Secret Garden closes; children under 10 free when accompanied by adult.

Times: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. weekends/holidays (closes at 5:30 p.m. in winter months).

What: Ten Atlantic bottlenosed 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 that's more akin to someone showing visitors where everything is, most notably the tunnel from which visitors can look through the side of the tanks to gaze at the dolphins. While the management here insists there's no "show" and that the animals don't do "tricks," feedings are frequent and the dolphins earn their culinary rewards by flipping and swimming in formations.

What swims: Call it what you want, but sitting on the edge of a dolphin lagoon watching them leap into the air on command is nothing short of "totally awesome," Jamie said. The knowledgeable staff is helpful and patient, and a video of the first dolphin birth at the facility was worth several viewings. "My goal in life now is to swim with dolphins," JoAnna said.

What sinks: True to its name, the only things here are dolphins, and there's no interactivity. Also, aside from the non-tricks during the non-show, there's nothing else to show off the dolphins' legendary intelligence.

Fun fact: A newborn calf swims non-stop 24 hours a day for a couple of weeks. The mother will swim as well for a while, then become exhausted and station herself at the center of the tank to keep a watchful eye on the child, Dolphin Habitat director Mike Muraco said.

Also notable: A 20,000-gallon marine aquarium stocked with sharks, puffer fish and angelfish behind the front desk is free 24 hours a day.

3. TOURNAMENT OF KINGS

Where: Excalibur Hotel & Casino, 3850 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: $43.95 plus tax (includes show and dinner); children under 3 are free if they sit in an adult's lap.

Times: 6 and 8:30 p.m. nightly.

What: A half-dozen breeds of horses are showcased in a rousing 90-minute Camelot-era production where viewers sit around an oval arena and eat with their hands while watching the good guys defeat the evildoers. There's a story in here somewhere--something about avenging the death of King Arthur--but mostly it's a chance to watch buff men direct galloping steeds through a series of contests in the name of justice, or something. Most of the dozen horses that appear are standard fare except the big black knight horse ridden by the bad guy, which is one of only about 3,000 Dutch Friesians in the U.S., barn manager Mimi Tilton said.

What roars: A perfect alchemy of Vegas show pizazz and animal appeal; no other show in town integrates its creatures into a plot. Quoting a line from the show, Jamie said, "Is it good? Yes! Yes! Yes!" JoAnna noted that while magic shows can do without their critters, the horses were required here "or it wouldn't have made all that much sense." Plus, kids love the chance to eat with their hands, no matter how bland that roasted chicken may be.

What bites: There's no educational value here, the horses aren't really that exotic, and there's no interaction between guests and the horses--although much audience screaming is part of the entertainment. Tickets seem expensive, although not terribly so in modern Vegas for a 60-actor show that includes dinner. Also, it was disconcerting to see those horses exposed to so much explosive noise--including pyrotechnics.

Fun fact: Lights are out in the 29-horse stable on the Excalibur property from 1 to 4:30 a.m., known as "relaxation time" for the horses. Attendants are on hand, however, 24 hours a day, to feed and exercise the animals, Tilton said.

4. TROPICANA BIRD SHOW

Where: Tropics Lounge at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: Free

Times: 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.

What: Bird handler and former Miss Nevada Tiana Carroll shows off her navel and, oh yeah, her menagerie of colorful parrots for a half-hour of stupid bird tricks (riding a bicycle, singing "How much is that doggie in the window," etc.). Most are common, though lovely, parrots, but one is a Moluccan cockatoo, endangered in the wild. Carroll and husband, Clint Carvalho, a legendary Vegas bird-show performer who opens for Jay Leno whenever he's in town, train birds that were abused and abandoned by pet owners. After the show, Carroll and the birds pose for photos with audience members, also for free.

What soars: Jamie and JoAnna loved the tricks, especially the one where the parrot plays basketball. "Birds are always cool as long as they don't poop on you," JoAnna observed. For the price, it's a worthy diversion.

What bites: Because the show is done on a small stage at a bar, younger viewers must watch from tables on an upper level behind a short glass wall. Also, Carroll's hyperkinetic act "gets annoying," Jamie said, especially when she makes the audience do "YMCA." Arrive at least 20 minutes early if you hope to get a seat.

Fun fact: Mango, the Moluccan cockatoo, comically tells Carroll to "shut your mouth" several times during the show. The bird learned that phrase--and other more offensive ones--after being verbally accosted for years by a former owner. "He gets rewarded for saying that now, so he associates it with getting a treat," Carvalho said. "We've turned a negative into a positive."

Also notable: Some of Carvalho's birds are also on display for free from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the lobby of the Mandalay Bay resort, where they can be petted and seen flying around.

5. THE ATLANTIS AQUARIUM

Where: The Forum Shops mall at Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: Free.

Times: Main aquarium tank is visible during mall hours, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-midnight on Friday and Saturday. Behind-the-scenes tours of the fish facilities go off at 1:15 and 5:15 p.m. weekdays. Also, fish handlers dive into the main aquarium to feed the animals at 3:15 and 7:15 p.m.

What: A 50,000-gallon horseshoe-shaped saltwater tank at the north end of the Forum Shops houses more than 500 colorful fish of more than 100 species including zebra sharks and cow-nose rays. Down below, on the free educational tour, visitors handle live starfish and observe lined seahorses, animals that can't be placed in the main tank because keeping them safe and properly fed would be difficult, aquarium director Michelle Grisham said.

What swims: Jamie left the tour remarking, "That was better than I expected." A very personable and knowledgeable aquarist spent a full hour answering questions and allowing us to touch a range of fascinating sea animals. If you don't have time for that, though, the kids were also entertained just gazing at the huge aquarium on the main level as we waited for our table at the nearby Cheesecake Factory. "That's a pretty good place for it," JoAnna said, noting that there's a free, hourly pyrotechnics and light show in the same rotunda, and an IMAX simulation ride is steps away.

What sinks: The kids were irked that you have to go on a tour to see the seahorses. While the tour was enlightening, it also had the somnolence of a school field trip.

Fun fact: One yellow-finned snapper knows his name (Slash), because of a visible scar above his right eyebrow. Grisham insisted the 2-foot, white and yellow-striped fish, one of three in the tank, can hear fish feeders calling its name underwater and responds by coming for his kibbles.

Also notable: The hotel also has a Seahorse Lounge with a 1,700-gallon tank that contains about 100 potbellied seahorses, a different breed than can be seen on the Forum Shops tour. Children aren't allowed to get up close because it's a bar.

6. WILDLIFE HABITAT

Where: Flamingo Las Vegas, 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: Free

Times: Area is open 24 hours a day, although it's hard to see after dark. Penguin feedings and a brief lecture occur at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily.

What: Beautiful pink Chilean fla-mingos and endangered African penguins flop around leisurely on islands amid tranquil waterfalls along with 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. The 15-acre Wildlife Habitat, created in 1995, is in the back near the pools.

What soars: Set right outside the huge windows of the hotel's excellent Paradise Garden Buffet, it's a perfect opportunity to combine two of Vegas' primary attractions for kids--the animals and the all-you-can-eat brunch ($10.95 plus tax).

What bites: Jamie and JoAnna ranked this one lower partly because the birds and fish, while pretty, weren't really that unusual and the attraction offered no entertainment or interactive component. "You mostly just look and walk on," JoAnna noted. Also, moronic guests occasionally throw things at the birds, from bits of lobster to, one time, a broom.

Fun fact: Pink flamingos Bubblegum and Pink Floyd are a gay couple, and the gender and sexual orientation of a penguin named Turnip is unclear, wildlife manager Robin Haeffner-Matos said. The gay flamingos can be spotted by looking for the two that hang out together that both have bands on their right legs, Haeffner-Matos' way of signifying they're male. Turnip is a bit more puzzling; "his" sex has never been ascertained because taking blood for a test proved impossible, but "he" is believed to be male. In fact, Turnip was purchased to mate with Olivia, the resort's only white-beaked penguin, but has shown no interest in females.

7. LANCE BURTON: MASTER MAGICIAN

Where: Monte Carlo Resort & Casino, 3770 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: Seats start at $60.45 plus tax; 20 percent discount for active military.

Times: 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 10 p.m. on Tuesday and Saturday.

What: The city's best resident magician runs through an astonishing 90-minute repertoire that includes the appearances and disappearances of doves, pigeons, ducks and a goose. None of these animals is particularly rare, but Burton's fresh approaches--"he does clever skits and at one point has the ducks and the goose marching in a hilarious parade"--make this act work.

What soars: The kids were in stitches at one particular part in which Burton allegedly attempts to explain how other magicians do the cliche pull-the-rabbit-from-the-hat trick. (A live rabbit appears at the beginning of the sequence, but is otherwise not actually involved in the skit.) "That had to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen," JoAnna said.

What bites: This is a very expensive show, the animals aren't unusual, and there's no up-close-and-personal access to the animals.

Fun fact: Years ago, during a performance at the Tropicana Hotel, one of his ducks flew into the audience and sat down on the head of a man in a row near the front. Burton said he removed the bird and wiped off the man's head. After the show, he discovered the man was actually the chairman of the board of the company that owned the hotel at the time.

8. LION HABITAT

Where: MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: Free ($20 for a photo with lion cubs).

Times: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Cats are switched out between 3:45 and 4:15 p.m. daily.

What: As many as five African lions at a time loll about inside a 35-foot-tall glass enclosure that contains elaborate mountainous desert scenery. Usually they just sleep, but occasionally they play ball or pace about. There's a tunnel for visitors to walk through in which you can often look up and see the lions sleeping above you. It leads to the gift shop.

What roars: Jamie and JoAnna were entranced by the tunnel. "They don't even know we're here," Jamie remarked as he put his hand on the 1 1/2-inch-thick glass to compare his hand size to that of the lion's mammoth paws. Standing next to or beneath one of these 500-pound mammals gives you a sense of their size that you can't feel from yards away at the zoo or through images on the Discovery Channel.

What bites: There's not a lot to do other than take a brief look. "I thought it would be bigger," JoAnna griped. The cub photos are intermittent and weren't available the day we were there ( Lion Habitat owner Keith Evans says sometimes they're not "in the mood" to be handled by the public). Also, the tunnel is small and inadvisable for anyone with claustrophobia.

Fun fact: All these cats are direct descendants of the first six lions used for MGM Studios' movie marquees in the 1920s, according to Evans.

9. SIEGFRIED & ROY'S SECRET GARDEN

Where: The Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: $12 (includes admission to the Dolphin Habitat); children under 10 free when accompanied by adult.

Times: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends/holidays (closes at 3:30 p.m. in winter months).

What: The illusionist duo are also well-respected conservationists, and here visitors get a look at their trademark royal white tigers they used to use in their show as well as white lions of Timbavati, Bengal tigers, panthers, an Asian elephant and snow leopards. Most are endangered or threatened in the wild. But the real "elephant in the living room"--the Oct. 3 mauling of Roy by one of these very tigers--goes unaddressed in any way. (Montecore, the tiger that attacked Roy, is no longer placed on public display "for his own safety," one handler told me.)

What roars: There's no denying these animals are impressive, rare and interesting. Also, there's a self-guided audio tour in at least seven different languages, and animal handlers are on hand to answer questions.

What bites: Aside from the avoidance of the mauling incident, the kids grew weary of the constant back-patting Siegfried & Roy give themselves on the audio tour for their conservation efforts. (Sample: "Siegfried and I spend every waking moment with our animals. It's no different than raising children.") "They just go on and on about how great they are," Jamie complained. Meanwhile, "the animals mostly just sit there," JoAnna noted. Since expectations were so high--Secret Garden has been a major Vegas attraction for years--our disappointment was all the more intense.

Fun fact: The Asian elephant, Gildah, weighs four tons and takes in 40 gallons of water and 250 pounds of food a day.

Also notable: Two or three white tigers are on display for free viewing 24 hours a day in the Royal White Tiger Habitat at the south entrance to the hotel. An informational video narrated by the illusionists eerily shows Roy wrestling and playing with tigers on their Vegas estate.

10. THE MAGIC OF RICK THOMAS

Where: Tropicana Resort & Casino, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Cost: $19.75 to $25.25 depending on seating.

Times: 2 and 4 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

What: Doves as well as white and orange tigers, which are endangered in the wild, disappear and reappear in a limp one-hour show that offers the standard magician fare of levitating girls and splitting them in half. One particularly cringe-worthy low note comes when Thomas, a Strip veteran, likens himself to Gene Kelly dancing with a hat rack in "Singing in the Rain" and then dances with his wig-clad microphone stand to "Wild Thing." The one flash of excitement comes when Thomas walks one of the tigers toward the audience on a steel-chain leash, although images of Roy Horn's injury in October make what was probably once a cool moment into something more frightful than fun.

What roars: The price, which is a steal these days for a theater show at a major Las Vegas hotel. Thomas, who claims the show is the "most successful daytime act" in Vegas history, also gets credit for doing a lot of conservation work with tigers without tooting his horn.

What bites: "Uhh, the guy dances with a metal stand," JoAnna said. "I was embarrassed for him." He also, oddly, uses a Muzak version of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore" as theme music. The same kinds of tigers--and many other creatures--are at the Secret Garden, and Lance Burton's magic show is vastly more creative, albeit three times the cost. If you're already at the Trop, the bird show is quicker, more entertaining and free.

Fun (?) fact: On Thanksgiving, Thomas said he feeds his tigers whole, 20-pound turkeys. The tigers, thinking the turkeys are still alive (they're not), grab them in their jaws and slam them against a wall until they're sure they're dead.

Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer.

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