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Lion Habitat Ranch welcomes four new cubs

Like crazy things tend to do, this particular crazy thing started with a guy in his 20s, a sexy car, and not much of a plan.

And now 43 years, 52 lions, a couple of ostriches (ostrichi?) and a bevy of smaller birds later, a 66-year-old guy is taking care of four new, incredibly adorable lion cubs born just this past Friday.

“It just snowballed,” Keith Evans said.

Evans and his wife, Beverly, own the Lion Habitat Ranch, just off Interstate 15 and St. Rose Parkway at the south end of town. It’s accredited by the Zoological Association of America, and it’s open to the public Fridays through Mondays. Adult admission is $20, which includes one child admission free. There are also discounts available.

Evans said the cubs’ mother, a 2 ½-year-old named Cheeto, didn’t take care of them. He feared they would die, so he’s been bottle-feeding them hourly since they were born. On Tuesday, they were trying to walk, but hadn’t yet opened their eyes.

Many of Evans’ lions used to be on display at the MGM Grand. Evans would transport his lions to and from the hotel every day. When the resort removed its habitat last year, Evans decided to open up his place to the public. He’s been there since 1989, he said.

None of this was the original plan.

Way back when, Evans was a 23-year-old kid going to school in Florida when he happened upon a guy who was using a real, live cougar to promote the new Mercury Cougar at a car show. Evans was intrigued. He got to know the guy, who was a local fire department chief.

One thing led to another, and soon Evans found himself the owner of his very own cougar — the animal, not the car. He was living in Ohio, but decided to move permanently to Florida. So, he said, he put the cougar in his Corvette and drove south.

Then he got a leopard. And then the snowballing thing happened.

He led education efforts, he said, using his animals to teach schoolchildren and Boy Scouts about conservation. He was told he should move to New York or California, so he could get into the television commercial business. New York is too cold, so California it was.

Except he stopped in Las Vegas on the way. He and his then-wife visited the old zoo at Tule Springs, which was about to close. As fate had it, a leopard stole his wife’s purse. Just snatched it right away from her.

He talked the people in charge into letting him go into the cage to get it. A newspaper photographer happened to catch the shot.

The next thing you know, he’s working on the Strip, making $5,000 a week. He got his permits and he got jobs at Caesar’s Palace and worked with Doug Henning and Willie Nelson and, eventually the MGM thing. He did local TV commercials, too, but mostly he kept out of the public eye.

When the Las Vegas zoo closed a few weeks back, Evans was called upon to help out. He ended up taking the facility’s only lion, which he said is doing well, and a few birds.

His ranch, which sits on about six acres he owns in unincorporated Clark County, features chain-link fence cagesthat looked clean on Tuesday. A couple times, he got into the caged areas with the lions, though he was careful to avoid getting close to the adult males.

He showed off a Plexiglas enclosed spot where patrons can get pictures of a group of 15-week-old lion cubs and their mom.

He showed off an outdoor arena where, he said, folks who pay for private dinner parties can actually feed the lions and pretend to be lion tamers.

He showed off a photo-op area where kids can pose in front of a sheet of Plexiglas while he summons a 500-pound beast that looks like it’s straight out of the Lion King to roar and rumble only a few inches away.

Great fun. Maybe.

But he also said the park is getting only a few dozen visitors a day when it’s open. That’s not enough, and it’s not nearly close to its capacity.

He said he’s been posting videos on his YouTube channel, and tweeting those videos on Twitter, but so far, it’s not bringing in the customers. Business has picked up since the zoo closed, but not enough.

He doesn’t have the money for a marketing campaign, so he just does what he can.

Maybe the cubs, so small you could hold one in each hand, will bring in more people. He and his wife hope so. They’re growing fast. The two males will gain about 12 pounds a month, the females about 10 pounds a month.

They’re growing really fast, as lions tend to do.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307. You can find him on Twitter at @richardlake.

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