HAVE YOU ever breezed by a window, realized you just blew past something spectacular, stopped and returned for a second look? That's how the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand caught me the first time. Unlike a zoo, where lions seem captive behind bars, the soundproof glass walls and floors of the habitat allow us to see lions hanging out, interacting with one another and their human handlers -- holding us captive.
"The hardest part was to teach them to walk on the glass floors in the habitat," says Keith Evans, their owner.
In the last nine years, three to five lions have been on view daily at the habitat. Some lions work once a week; others appear more often. Like rock stars, these cats have fans. Evans has received e-mails from visitors who want to find out when certain lions will appear, hoping their children will get to watch lion cubs mature.
Where to see the lions
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 880-0880 or (702) 891-7777, www.mgmgrand.com/ entertainment/lion-habitat .aspx.
The lions appear 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Viewing is free.
Offstage, the lions' lives are equally interesting.
The 38 lions, ages 1 to 11, live in large cages on a nearby 8.5-acre ranch owned by Evans. Those that have grown up together are kept in the same group -- a pride of sorts. Six mornings a week, they are fed Nebraska Brand, a balanced feline zoo diet. Treats include horse leg bones and steaks. There are other perks to the job: The big cats even have 401(k) plans.
Precautions are also extensive. Though lions are less aggressive than tigers and more social by nature -- making them easier to handle -- "they're always wild animals . . . so they can turn around and become possessive of something and defend it," Evans said.
"We don't allow anybody to carry any sticks or any kind of device that could hurt a cat. It's hands and voice [commands] only."
Handlers first become friends with the lions on the ranch before they ever enter the MGM habitat. "No matter how well they get along at the ranch," Evans said, "the dynamics change when the lions enter the habitat -- like a child in a supermarket, sometimes pushing the limits."
Evans has plenty of help. Josh Laughlin and Martin "Buzz" Busby work days, and Jon Meador and Jason Alshire take the night shift. Initially, Laughlin couldn't picture himself hanging out unprotected with lions. But Evans emphasizes safety and introduces a new trainer slowly.
"You learn to read the cat before you let somebody go in," Evans said. "The cats get to learn who you are when you're outside the cages."
Laughlin spent five months progressing from doing chores outside the cages to working inside the cages and to hanging out at the MGM habitat. Busby, meanwhile, has been working at the habitat since it opened in 1999.
The handlers begin working with the cubs as babies, so the lions come to see them as parents. Because adult male lions are more territorial, a new trainer is first introduced to cubs and female lions.
The day starts at 7 a.m. for the lions that are going to be displayed at the habitat that morning. If a lion doesn't want to go, Evans sends an alternate: "We will not force a cat."
The lions appear from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily in two shifts. For each shift, two lions are loaded in transport cages, taken into the building, then showered, shampooed and blown dry.
Lions like baths better than house cats do, Evans said. "When we raise them as babies, they stay in the house with us and get bathed every day."
When the cubs reach 10 weeks, they typically stay in a cage right outside the bedroom of Evans and his wife, Beverly. They try to keep the cubs as close as possible before turning them over to the trainers.
Before cubs are put into the rotation at the habitat, there are photo sessions with visitors so they can become accustomed to people.
Apparently, the lions love going to the habitat. The occasional challenge is getting them to leave the MGM. When they return from a shift, there's roaring back and forth across the ranch for up to half an hour, as if the habitat lions are fielding questions from the others about their adventures that day.
The lions are typically most active on arrival at the habitat at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. One Saturday morning, I saw two descendants of Leo, the original MGM lion. At only a year old, Geno weighs a manly 300 pounds. Belladonna is a svelte 200 pounds. (Lions weigh only 1 pound at birth and as cubs gain about 10 to 12 pounds a month.) "Cat naps" are frequent; adult lions sleep 18 to 20 hours a day.
Evans hopes that visitors will fall in love with the MGM cats in a way that will lead them to push for greater protections of lions in the wild. "You only save what you love," he said.
Originally, he hoped to send some of the lions back to Africa. "The problem is that people can still go trophy hunting in Africa and shoot lions. And poachers still poach them. Here, I know that they'll be safe with me from birth to death," Evans said.
What happens when Evans dies? Well, the MGM Grand manages the 401(k) for the lions, to provide for food and trainers to take care of them the rest of their lives. There's already about $1.6 million in their account.