Location: 1775 North Rancho Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89106
Visiting the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park: The zoo sits on a busy road, surrounded by a casino, bars and residences. You'll know it by the childlike hand-painted murals on fences. Without the murals, the zoo would likely blend in with its weathered surroundings. Park on the street and walk up the dusty path to the zoo's entrance, where chickens and peacocks welcome you to their home (and beg for a little grain). It's immediately clear that this isn't the San Diego Zoo.
This 3-acre park with 150 species of plants and animals is more like the single-A minor league franchise to the big leagues. It's a point of pride that this is the only official zoo in Las Vegas - a point of pride to the zoo, that is. But 3 miles southeast on the Las Vegas Strip are plenty of animal habitats, from white tigers to dolphins and more - many of which are in air-conditioned havens that provide tourists relief from the sweltering summer temperatures. As a result, the non-profit zoo doesn't receive much support from the city or county, and instead relies on donations, animal sponsorships and volunteers, along with a small staff, to keep it running. In fact, some residents are unaware that Las Vegas has a zoo.
All things considered, the array of animals is somewhat surprising. Members of the last family of Barbary macaques (sometimes called Barbary apes) in the United States swing around in one of the zoo's central displays. Nearby are swamp wallabies, river otters, mountain lions, a golden eagle and an alligator. There's a wide array of birds and snakes, desert tortoises and more. Pigeons fly around, hoping to compete with the wandering peacocks for bird food, which is sold by the cup for $1 and sprinkled liberally by visitors.
One of the most popular exhibits is Midas, the lion. Basking in the sun, separated from onlookers by just two chain-link fences (one tall fence, which keeps the lion and his lioness sister in, and another short one that keeps human fingers out), Midas growls as he bats around a barrel, staring at visitors.
Though it's a small and somewhat unusual place (zoo director Pat Dingle is a former homicide detective who likes to say that all of his zoo training came from a Dr. Seuss book), the spectators - well, the kids, at least - seem have a great time. Even if the habitats are less elaborate and the animal selection is smaller than the major zoos, here you can get about as close or closer to the varied species. About 50,000 people visit per year, and most are Las Vegas locals.
A zoo visit also carries with it a fair amount of suspense. The ostriches' heads easily reach over their chain-link fence enclosure. Tall visitors are smart to not turn their backs on the dinosaur-like birds and their massive beaks.
And then there's the petting zoo, which is a playground with goats and chickens wandering around. The sign on the gate is enough to steer some of the timid away: "It is the nature of goats in play to jump and butt. They don't bite but they may butt you."
It's true - they may. Be sure to leave your cups of chicken/goat feed outside of the fence. The goats have a Pavlovian response to these cups, whether they're empty or full. They're not afraid to chase you, jump towards you and, yes, even butt you if you have something that they want.
Suggestions about the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park: Visit the website for a coupon to receive 50% off a child's ticket. Because the zoo is outdoors, it's best to visit late September through April, before the summer heat sets in.
Cost of admission to the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park: $7 for adults; $5 for children ages 2 to 12 and seniors 62 and older; and free for children younger than 2.
Hours at the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park: The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.