Where the Wild Things Are…in Nevada
Sanctuaries across the state give displaced animals a new home.
BY MEGG MUELLER AND CORY MUNSON
Human fascination with Mother Nature’s fauna existed long before recorded history. We can’t get enough of the animals with whom we share the planet, and while the question of man’s impact on other creatures is widely debated, there are a number of organizations in Nevada that raise the art of caretaking to a whole new level.
Across the state, education, conservation, and compassion are the messages the following places preach, and it’s one to which the entire choir should be listening. As a bonus, while you’re learning, you get to discover a world full of incredible animals.
LION HABITAT RANCH
Lions, in all their magnificence, are the stars of the animal kingdom. Awe, reverence, and a touch of fear occupy the thoughts of those who gaze at the fierce and powerful cats, but it’s long been Keith Evans’ hope to add some basic understanding as well.
Keith is president of the Lion Habitat Ranch (LHR) in Henderson and has been working with animals since 1974. He became the caretaker of the MGM Resort’s lion exhibit in the late 1990s, traveling from Henderson to The Strip twice a day with his lions. In 2012, that partnership ended, and Lion Habitat Ranch opened to the public soon after.
Keith’s career started almost 50 years ago, and while he admits times have changed, the mission is still the same. In fact, it’s posted on the ranch’s website:
“It is our desire and belief that we can make you fall in love with our lions, and by doing so, we all will strive to protect and donate to wildlife habitats.”
LHR advocates for education about African lions, but it also supports international organizations including Conservation International in Kenya. Last year, unfortunately, the mission for LHR shifted slightly into survival mode as the pandemic temporarily shuttered the habitat. A nonprofit organization, the habitat relies on ticket sales and donations to keep the doors open.
“We’re still not recovered, and I don’t know if we will anytime soon,” Keith says. “There are a lot of people that come here when they’re in Vegas, but now they may not be able to travel due to the pandemic. It’s also impacting donations.”
In July, the habitat reopened with 30 big cats, ostriches, emus, other birds, and Ozzie, the only giraffe living in the state of Nevada. Ozzie may also be the only giraffe anywhere that paints with a paintbrush, a skill he gladly demonstrates each day, unless he’s not in an artistic mood.
A visit can be as simple as wandering the habitat and observing the various animals, or guests can take it to the next level and book one of LHR’s unique offerings, such as feeding a lion by hand, or taking a 90-minute tour behind the scenes to see how the animals are cared for. Whatever the experience, Keith is certain guests won’t soon forget their visit.
“We’re not in a casino, and you don’t have to go through a casino to get to us. We’re outdoors, and that’s one of the safest places,” he says.
It’s certainly the right place to fall in love with a lion or two. Located less than 20 minutes from The Strip, it’s the perfect adventure for anyone looking for a different kind of wild time.
Lion Habitat Ranch
382 Bruner Ave.
Henderson, NV 89044
For 27 years, Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary just north of Reno has sought to educate its audience about wild animals. The genesis for this altruistic idea came from that most brutal of learning opportunities: a huge mistake. In the early 1980s, Aaron and Diana Hiibel bought two gray wolves and shortly thereafter realized they shouldn’t be pets.It proved to be the inspiration they needed to educate others who might find themselves in a similar situation. The mission to advocate for environmental stewardship has been a successful one, and while the couple recently retired from the Ark, the new Executive Director Bill Baker has stepped in as steward of that goal.
“Our mission has always been we are a wildlife sanctuary that inspires environmental stewardship through education,” Bill says.
The Animal Ark’s 38 acres are home to injured and non-releasable wildlife. They house everything from tortoises to cheetahs, including raptors, fox, bobcats, bears, tigers, and wolves. These amazing creatures can be seen in a wild setting which still maintains the safety of both animal and human. Changes to the property are in the works to further enhance the Animal Ark experience.
“Currently we are going through a construction and renovation phase as we prepare for our accreditation inspection by the Zoological Association of America,” Bill explains. “We are working on a new exhibit for Gibbs the black bear, a new maintenance building, interpretive graphics, exhibit upgrades, and we just finished renovating our tortoise exhibit.”
There are many reasons to plan a visit to Animal Ark, but of course that list starts with the animals. Along with general visits, special events are a big draw, especially the cheetah dash where visitors can see these amazing cats running at speeds around 70 mph.
A portion of the park’s proceeds goes to support its animals and conservation organizations the Ark supports each year, such as cheetah conservations in Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa, and WildAid—an organization that aims to protect animals from illegal trade practices. The spirit of giving back is one that runs through the core of Animal Ark.
“I am truly fortunate to be supported by the best team that I have ever worked with in my career,” Bill says. “Each person is a talented professional that has dedicated their life to conservation.”
1265 Deerlodge Road
Reno, Nevada 89508
GILCREASE NATURE SANCTUARY
The Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary sits on the edge of northwestern Las Vegas. The 1500-acre establishment has served as an animal sanctuary for the past 42 years, but its origins date to 1920 when the Gilcrease family purchased ranchland south of historic Tule Springs.
When young Bill Gilcrease found an abandoned quail on the ranch, his mother let him raise the orphan bird. For Bill, this event was prelude to a life dedicated to the protection of wildlife. In 1979, he established the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary on his family’s ranchland. In 2017, Bill passed at the age of 98, but his vision has become a permanent fixture of the local community.
When COVID forced lockdowns in March of 2020, Gilcrease staff worked quickly to protect the sanctuary’s bird, reptile, and mammalian population.
“At the time, there was so little information available,” says Amanda Christian, operations manager at the sanctuary. “There was a lot of concern because we had no idea if we could easily transmit the virus to animals and cause another variant to form. They were difficult times.”
The sanctuary let go of its volunteers, and the limited staff was left to care for the animal residents. COVID also drove the sanctuary to shut down its petting zoo, a policy that Amanda believes will continue.
Now that the public is again invited to return, the sanctuary has shifted its focus to interactive learning: instead of a petting zoo, visitors can book appointments to shadow a goat groomer or feed tortoises fresh produce from the sanctuary’s garden.
Amanda describes her vision for Gilcrease in the coming years as a community hub that steps away from an animal sanctuary’s assumed model of a park-like zoo.
To start, she hopes to bring in more visitors through events. The sanctuary already has events planned for Halloween and the holiday season. Another event—Light up the Night —invites the public to bring solar powered lights, which will be placed around the sanctuary for a dusk tour.
Gilcrease will soon feature a makerspace and building workshop where visitors of all ages can learn crafting skills, such as a class on how to make backyard ornaments for birds. Larger renovations projects are on the horizon, including construction of a tortoise gazebo and an art garden repurposed from an old junkyard. The Boy Scouts of America are also helping to construct a commemorative cactus garden.
“Our goal is to keep this place going forever,” says Amanda. “We’re a small, dedicated group doing everything we can to make this place fully intact and growing 150 years from now.”
Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary
8103 Racel St.
Las Vegas, NV 89131
DESERT RANCH EXPERIENCE BY CAMEL SAFARI
In a corner of the harsh desert landscape some 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, a camel, armadillo, porcupine, and llama walk into a yard.
If you’re waiting for the punch line, you might want to go hang out with the sloth, because there is no punch line. That’s just the type of scene you can find when you visit the Desert Ranch Experience (formerly known as the Camel Safari) in Bunkerville. Owner Guy Seeklus has created a mesmerizing menagerie of exotic animals in an unlikely setting.
The current roster of animals that visitors can see on the tour includes more than 30 Bactrian and Dromedary camels, zebra, a two-toed sloth, sand cats, New Guinea singing dogs, armadillo, alpacas, emus, and llamas.
Tours begin with a little history lesson. Guy—or one of his equally passionate staff—gives guests a lesson in all things camel. The talks can include such topics as where they originated, what they were used for, how much milk females produce, the intense weight-loss of a bull in rut, and of course, a discussion on which is better, one hump or two?
Depending on your interest level, tours can take you on a meet-and-greet of the safari’s denizens who live along the base of the Virgin Mountains overlooking the Virgin River. There are hands-on encounters available, too, along with sunset safari tours and more. Weddings, reunions, corporate retreats, birthday parties, and bachelor/bachelorette parties can all be booked at the ranch.
With each adventure, educational facts and interesting tidbits are dispensed freely; learn that camels live 30-35 years, or that African crested porcupines are nocturnal creatures. Hanging out with Ambien, the sloth, you might just learn they have very slow digestive processes, and their survival strategy is based on staying still. The knowledge guests leave with goes a long way toward fostering the safari’s goal of wildlife conservation, education, and recreation. Desert Ranch is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and is a member of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Desert Ranch Experience by Camel Safari
2725 River Cliff Road
Bunkerville, NV 89007
SIERRA NEVADA ZOOLOGICAL PARK
Just 10 miles north of Reno, Sierra Nevada Zoological Park (SNZP) has spent the last 31 years fostering compassion for and sharing knowledge about animals. The legacy of the men who opened the formerly Sierra Safari Zoo remains to this day: “We do this with a commitment for the responsible care of our animal ambassadors and to encourage the thoughtful stewardship of all animals on Earth.”
The nonprofit zoo is not a rescue facility, but it provides homes for animals that otherwise wouldn’t have one. Whether it is a reptile outgrowing its family, a primate from a research facility, or a wildcat leaving its previous owner, the zoo is willing to give the animal a home.
There are more than 40 species of animals visitors can see at SNZP, plus a petting zoo where kids can get up close to fallow deer, goats, alpacas, llamas, sheep, and miniature cows.
Sierra Nevada Zoological Park
10200 N. Virginia St.
Reno, NV 89506
MORE TO SEE
On the Las Vegas Strip, it’s not unusual to have a wild encounter. For something that is big on animal magnetism and short on danger, check out these venues.
Flamingo Wildlife Habitat
Located at the Flamingo Las Vegas, the 15-acre garden invites you to commune with a flock of Chilean flamingos, ringed teal ducks, sacred ibis, and two brown pelicans. Koi fish and turtles inhabit the streams and waterfalls of this unexpected habitat.
An interactive experience with Asian otters, Kinkajou, stingrays, sharks, and more is offered at this adventure park. Part educational museum, part wildlife encounter, SeaQuest is all the fun.
Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat
Bottlenose dolphins, white tigers, white lions, and leopards are part of the legacy the famed Las Vegas show duo created during their tenure on The Strip. Meet and greet experiences are available with the dolphins.
Shark Reef Aquarium
Located at Mandalay Bay, visitors can see more than 2,000 animals, including sharks, giant rays, endangered green sea turtles, piranha, and a Komodo dragon.