Benny's described as a sassy cat that’s all about food and affection
South of the Las Vegas Strip, while cruising down Bruner Avenue, don’t be alarmed if you hear lions roaring in the distance. It’s likely you are passing by The Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson. This animal sanctuary cares for about 26 big cats, a painting giraffe, surrendered pets and other animal rescues that needed a forever home.
One of their youngest male lions, Benny, is celebrating his 9th birthday party on Saturday, April 16 followed by Easter festivities on Sunday, April 17. The events run from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on both days.
To honor both special occasions, there will be a scavenger hunt for visitors, plenty of photo opportunities. The animals will receive both birthday and holiday themed enrichments (toys and snacks). Before the parties get started, let’s get to know a little bit more about Benny and his buddies at the sanctuary.
Keeper and trainer Alex Mendoca gave Off The Strip an exclusive tour of The Lion Habitat, which is about nine acres of land dedicated to the animals. Mendoca spoke with us about the lions’ origins, the animals’ unique personalities and what it’s like to care for them. She’s worked for the non-profit organization for two years and her background in biology gave us insider details you won’t find anywhere else.
How Did the Lions Get Here?
In 2012, when the MGM Grand closed its lion exhibition, the big cats returned to their habitat near the Strip and it opened to the public.
While most of the lions come from the MGM Grand’s former exhibit, some of the animals were born at the habitat like Benny. His parents, Swifty and Pebbles, are also cared for at the sanctuary. All the animals have their own quirky personalities including Benny. He’s described as a sassy cat that’s all about food and affection.
Meet Benny the Lion
“We’ve had Benny his whole life. He is one of our grouchy cats. He’s really funny [and] he is our most affectionate male lion as long as there is no food around,” says Mendoca. “As soon as the food comes out, all he wants is food.”
That’s something we can all relate to, right? But you’ll never guess what he does when his artsy neighbor, Ozzie the giraffe, is showing off his epic painting skills. Don’t let this cool cat’s chill disposition fool you.
Let’s just say that the lions like to mark their territories. Benny tends to do this, especially while Ozzie is painting and the visitors are standing too close to his enclosure.
On the enclosures, there are large signs warning of this very behavior.
Fun Fact: Bellowing, what we usually call roaring, is how the lions communicate with each other. When they are fully projecting, they can be heard up to five miles away.
No One Paints Like Ozzie
His neighbor, Ozzie, is the only male giraffe in Nevada. He comes all the way from the Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Wichita, Kansas. Male giraffes are very solitary creatures, she adds. The way the trainer describes him is reminiscent of a moody, introverted artist. Everything has to be just right for him to get his creative juices flowing. He’s also not a big fan of the color pink.
She explains how Ozzie learned to paint. “It was a step by step process. We had to teach him over quite a number of months. He has a giant paintbrush that he learned how to hold and brush on the canvas,” says Mendoca. “He got rewarded for each step. He’s very smart and learned it very quickly. Their minds need to be stimulated.”
Why Aren’t the Lions Returned to the Wild?
While animal lovers may feel conflicted about keeping the animals in these enclosures, The Lion Habitat takes in animals that need homes and special care. Most of the animals in the habitat were raised by humans their entire lives, like the ones from the MGM display exhibit, or they were rescues from previous zoos. Some of the animals, like many of the birds, were surrendered pets. The animal caretakers want what’s best for these animals and they work hard to ensure they are treated properly.
“We are here to do everything we can to give them a great life. These lions have been through a number of generations that have been under human care. Even though that doesn’t domesticate them by any means, they are no longer‘wild’ animals. They have a lot of behaviors and a lot of associations with people that would not make it safe for them in the wild. It’s also a really hard life for a lion that has lived in the wild,” says Mendoca. “Their hunting success is under 20 percent and for some prides it’s even less than 5 percent. They have a really difficult time finding food.”
Each of the male lions eat about 10 pounds of food per day, which means these cats have big appetites to satisfy. Every general admission dollar makes a difference for this non-profit organization.
All Proceeds Benefit the Animals
All the proceeds, from the entrance fees to the artwork by Ozzie, goes to caring for the animals. To feed a lion, it takes about $10,000 per year, and that’s not including vet visits, maintenance fees or additional necessities they must provide for the animals. The Lion Habitat does everything they can to make the animals feel at home.
Mendoca says the Barbary lions, which are the majority of the lion species in the habitat, are rarely found in the wild anymore. This is mostly due to humans. Originally from the northern coast of Africa, these precious felines are an endangered species. Although it would be ideal for the lions to live in their natural habitat, these lions were not raised in that environment, which led to them becoming dependent on humans for survival.
“It’s a different life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Should we be taking a bunch of animals from the wild out of where they can live safely and happily? No. But that doesn’t mean that Swifty is having a bad time here with his air conditioning and easy access to food everyday. It’s a way for the public to come in and see what these animals are like. We encourage them to protect the ones that are in the wild.”
She says many of their volunteers first came in as visitors, but immediately fell in love with the animals. Part of the habitat’s mission is to educate the public about these beautiful creatures and how we can help protect them.
While interviewing Mendoca, a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulder looks over at us and says, “I want to feed the lions.”
Local Tip: The best times of year to visit are during spring and fall, before the temperatures grow extremely cold or hot. Much like humans, during the hundred degree plus weather, the lions like to hide out in their air conditioned dens.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The wildlife sanctuary has inspired many volunteers to join in effort to care for the animals. The keeper says she’s very thankful for all their hard work and assistance with the animals. Mendoca got a bit choked up while emphasizing how passionate she is about tending to the lions.
“I think when you get the experience of seeing a lion and a giraffe that close, it becomes a different thing in your head. We are all constantly working here to give them the best lives that we possibly can, to give them the attention they need, to give them all the things for their health that they need,” says Mendoca. “We as zookeepers really care about the animals. None of us would be here if we didn’t. We’re here to try and make their lives better.”
Admission tickets to The Lion Habitat Ranch for Benny’s birthday and the Easter celebration are available on their website. The Lion Habitat is located at 382 Bruner Avenue in Henderson, Nevada.