Plans by MGM Grand to close its lion habitat at the Strip hotel received praise Thursday by a high-profile animal rights group that also criticized the lions' owner for wanting to put them on exhibit at his 7.5-acre ranch in the south Las Vegas Valley.
A letter from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, thanks Murren and Chief Operating Officer Corey Sanders "for your decisions to close the lion exhibit ... and to offer our assistance in helping to relocate the lions to a reputable sanctuary."
Citing news reports, the letter said the lions' owner, Keith Evans, plans to put them on exhibit in Clark County.
"This plan is clearly not in the best interests of the animals. In their natural habitats, lions roam many miles of territory to hunt, raise their young, and avoid contact with people," according to the letter Thursday from Delcianna Winders, PETA's director of captive animal law enforcement.
The letter criticizes Evans for declawing lion cubs and for allowing trainers and handlers to have direct contact with the animals that led to two lion attacks at the MGM Grand.
Reached at his ranch southeast of the M Resort, Evans called PETA's letter "baloney" and wished PETA "good luck" in their efforts to put his 40 lions in a sanctuary.
Evans said that he has held his U.S. Department of Agriculture license for keeping lions for 40 years and that PETA has a "bad track record" in its endeavors to keep lions in sanctuaries.
Yvette Monet, corporate spokeswoman for MGM Resorts International, said the lions that Evans transports for display at the MGM Grand are owned by Evans, "and he is entirely responsible to their care."
Monet said the lions have always lived at Evans' ranch, and many of them were born there.
On Wednesday, MGM Grand announced that its lion habitat and retail shop will close Saturday . The habitat, a free attraction, opened in 1999 for $9 million.
In her letter, Winders said that MGM has maintained a $1 million fund for the care of lions at the habitat, "and we encourage you to use these funds to relocate the animals to a reputable sanctuary. We stand ready to help coordinate such a transfer."
Reached by phone late Thursday in California, Winder said an ideal sanctuary for the lions would be one operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, an organization, based in Galt, Calif., for abused and abandoned wildlife.
Winder said she has never visited Evans' ranch but said the ranch doesn't have enough space to provide for lions in a natural habitat.
Evans has said he intends to make his ranch a public attraction called The Cat House. He said he has completed the zoning and permitting requirements that will allow him to host private parties and tour groups.
The exhibit also might be open to the walk-in public, but he is trying to work out logistics such as staffing.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.