Vegas, untamed

Special to The Times

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, 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, 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.

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 “totally awesome,” as Jamie said. The knowledgeable staff is helpful and patient, and a video of the first dolphin birth at the facility -- where the calf, Squirt, squeezes out of his mother in a burst of blood and then swims with her -- was worth several viewings. “My goal in life now is to swim with dolphins,” JoAnna said.

What sinks: The exhibit has only dolphins and there’s no interactivity. Aside from the non-tricks during the non-show, there’s nothing else to show off their legendary intelligence.

No. 3: Tournament of Kings

Where: Excalibur Hotel and Casino, 3850 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 597-7600, Cost: $43.95 plus tax per person, including show and dinner. Times: 6 and 8:30 p.m. daily.

What: A half a dozen breeds of horse 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. Most of the dozen horses are standard breeds, except the big horse ridden by the bad black knight, which is one of about 3,000 Dutch Friesians in the U.S., said barn manager Mimi Tilton.

What soars: This is a perfect alchemy of Vegas-show pizazz and animal appeal: No other show in town integrates their creatures into a plot. Quoting a line from the show, Jamie said, “Is it good? Yes! Yes! Yes!” JoAnna noted that although magic shows can do without their critters, the horses were required here “or it wouldn’t have made all that much sense.”

What sinks: There’s no educational value, horses aren’t that exotic and there’s no interaction between guests and the horses. Tickets are expensive, although it includes a 60-actor show and dinner. Also, it bothered me to see the horses subjected to so much explosive noise -- including pyrotechnics.

No. 4. Tropicana Bird Show

Where: Tropics Lounge at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 739-2222, Cost: Free. Times: 11:30 a.m., and 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. daily.

What: Bird handler and former Miss Nevada Tiana Carroll shows off her navel and her menagerie of colorful parrots for half an hour of stupid bird tricks -- one rides a bicycle, another sings. Most of the parrots, though lovely, are common species, but one, a Moluccan cockatoo, is endangered. Carroll and her husband, Clint Carvalho, a popular Vegas bird-show performer, train birds abused or abandoned by their owners. After the show, Carroll and the birds pose for photos with audience members, for free.

What soars: Jamie and JoAnna loved the bird tricks, especially the one where the parrot played 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 sinks: Because the show takes place on a small stage at a bar, underage 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 the ‘YMCA.’ ” Arrive at least 20 minutes early if you hope to get a seat.

No. 5: The Atlantis Aquarium

Where: The Forum Shops mall at Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 427-7243 or (702) 731-7110, Cost: Free. Times: Main aquarium tank is visible during mall hours, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.- midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Behind-the-scenes tours of the fish facilities begin at 1:15 and 5:15 p.m. weekdays.

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. On the free educational tour, visitors can handle live starfish and observe lined seahorses.

What swims: Jamie left the tour remarking, “That was better than I expected.” A personable and knowledgeable aquarist spent an hour answering questions and allowing us to touch fascinating sea animals. If you don’t have time for the tour, the huge aquarium on the main level entertained Jamie and JoAnna as we waited for our table at the nearby Cheesecake Factory. “That’s a pretty good place for it,” JoAnna said.

What sinks: The kids were irked that you have to go on a tour to see the seahorses. Although the tour was enlightening, it had the somnolent feel of a school trip, rather than the spark of a Vegas attraction.

No. 6: Wildlife Habitat

Where: Flamingo Las Vegas, 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (888) 308-8899, Cost: Free. Times: Open 24 hours a day, although it’s hard to see after dark. Penguin feedings and a brief lecture at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily.

What: Beautiful pink Chilean flamingos and endangered African penguins flop on islands amid tranquil waterfalls, populated as well with Australian black swans, helmeted guinea fowl and ducks. The two islands are surrounded by fresh water, where colorful koi swim alongside 25-pound green-gray grass carp and yellow albino channel catfish. The 15-acre Wildlife Habitat, created in 1995, is in the back near the pools.

What soars: With its setting outside the huge windows of the Flamingo’s excellent Paradise Garden Buffet, the habitat combines two of Vegas’ primary attractions for kids -- animals and all-you-can-eat buffet. Pay $10.95 each plus tax for brunch; the buffet is served 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

What sinks: Jamie and JoAnna ranked this one lower on our list because the birds and fish, although pretty, weren’t unusual, and the attraction offered no entertainment or interactive component. “You mostly just look and walk on,” JoAnna said. “Where’s the fun in that?”

No. 7: Lance Burton:

Master Magician

Where: Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, 3770 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (888) 529-4828, Cost: Seats start at $60.45 plus tax; 20% discount for active military personnel. Times: 7 and 10 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday.

What: One of the city’s best resident magicians runs through an astonishing 90-minute repertoire that includes the appearance and disappearance of doves, pigeons, ducks and a goose. None of the animals is 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 worthwhile.

What soars: The kids were in stitches when Burton attempted to explain how magicians do the pull-a-rabbit-from-a-hat trick. (A live rabbit appeared only at the beginning of the sequence.) “That had to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” JoAnna said.

What sinks: The show’s expensive, the animals aren’t unusual, and there’s no personal access to the animals.

No. 8: Lion Habitat

Where: MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 880-0880, Cost: Free; $20 for a photo with lion cubs (11 a.m.-3 p.m., except Tuesdays). Times: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Closed 3:30-4:30 p.m. for feedings.

What: As many as five African lions at a time loll inside a 35-foot-tall glass enclosure that contains elaborate mountainous desert scenery. Usually they just sleep, but occasionally they play ball or pace. A tunnel allows visitors to walk through the habitat and look up at the lions sleeping above.

What roars: Jamie and JoAnna were entranced by the tunnel. “They don’t even know we’re here,” Jamie said as he put his hand on the 1.5-inch-thick glass to compare his hand to 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 get from yards away at the zoo.

What snores: There’s not a lot to do other than take a brief look. “I thought it would be bigger,” JoAnna griped. The photos weren’t available the day we were there. Lion Habitat owner Keith Evans says sometimes the cubs aren’t “in the mood” to deal with the public.

No. 9: Siegfried & Roy’s

Secret Garden

Where: The Mirage Hotel & Casino, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 791-7111, Cost: $12 per person, including admission to the Dolphin Habitat. Children 10 and under free with an adult. Times: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. weekends and holidays.

What: The illusionist duo are respected conservationists, and here visitors get a look at the trademark royal white tigers used in their show, as well as white lions, Bengal tigers, panthers, an Asian elephant and snow leopards. Most are endangered or threatened.

What roars: There’s no denying these animals are impressive, rare and interesting. The self-guided audio tour is in seven languages, and animal handlers answer questions.

What snores: The Oct. 3 mauling of Roy Horn by one of these tigers is not addressed, a glaring omission for an attraction that claims to be an educational facility. Montecore, the tiger that injured Roy, is no longer on display “for his own safety,” one handler told me. (Reports say Horn has improved so much that he is able to walk short distances with a wheeled walker.) Also, the kids grew weary of Siegfried & Roy’s constant back-patting for their conservation efforts. “They just go on and on about how great they are,” Jamie complained of the long-winded audio blurbs. Meanwhile, “the animals mostly just sit there,” JoAnna said. Because our expectations were so high -- the Secret Garden has been a major Vegas attraction for years -- our disappointment was all the more intense.

No. 10: The Magic of

Rick Thomas

Where: Tropicana Resort & Casino, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 739-2222, Cost: $20.75-$26.25 depending on seat. Children younger than 3 not permitted. Times: 2 and 4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

What: Doves, as well as endangered white and orange tigers, disappear and reappear in a limp one-hour production. Women are levitated and split in half. One cringe-worthy note comes when Thomas, a Strip veteran, likens himself to Gene Kelly dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain,” then dances with his wig-clad microphone stand to “Wild Thing.” The only flash of excitement comes when Thomas walks one of the tigers toward the audience on a steel-chain leash -- although images of Horn’s injury turn what would have been a cool moment into something more frightening than fun.

What soars: The price, which is a steal these days for a theater show at a major Las Vegas hotel. Thomas also gets credit for conservation work with tigers without tooting his horn the way Siegfried and Roy do.

What sinks: “Uhh, the guy dances with a metal stand,” JoAnna said. “I was embarrassed for him.” The same tigers -- and many other creatures -- are at the Secret Garden, and Lance Burton’s show is way more creative, but costlier.