Updated July 24, 2020 - 3:06 pm
A magician has a plan for a vacant plot on the Strip near McCarran International Airport: Erect a 13,000-square-foot tent to perform with three tigers.
Jay Owenhouse describes his family act as delivering messages of hope and overcoming adversity, particularly poignant after his wife fell ill and died about a decade ago. It also is meant to share with audiences the plight of the tiger, which is on the verge of extinction.
“Our animals participate in our show because they want to,” he said.
But the proposed six-month production has upset animal rights activists, who say it is exploitative and dangerous, and they are urging the Clark County Commission to nix the project when it is expected to come before the zoning commission Wednesday.
“Imagine if a tiger escaped and was in proximity to the Strip or anywhere near the city,” said Carrie LeBlanc, executive director of Henderson-based animal advocacy group CompassionWorks International. “I mean, it’s just ridiculous.”
LeBlanc submitted a letter, which she said had been co-signed by more than two dozen community members, to the commission this week outlining her concerns.
“His proposal to erect a temporary circus tent holding tigers on the Strip is not only tacky and out-of-keeping with the high standard for architecture and entertainment on the Las Vegas Strip, but is also a hazard both for public safety as well as the tigers he intends to keep onsite,” the letter states.
And on Tuesday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals joined the fight.
“PETA is calling on officials to shut down this shameless exploitation of sensitive big cats for a buck,” Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation director of captive animal law enforcement, said in a statement.
The organizations also cited the desert heat and loud airplane traffic overhead as reasons to be alarmed and said Owenhouse had been cited last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for not ensuring sufficient distance or a barrier between a tiger and the public.
And, of course, there is a connection to “Tiger King,” the popular Netflix documentary that highlighted the drama and perils of tiger sanctuaries and breeding. Owenhouse reportedly obtained tigers from Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a major tiger breeder featured in the series, the groups said.
Tigers ‘truly our family’
Owenhouse dismisses those concerns as a product of misinformation. For instance, he said he adopts but does not buy the tigers, and the citation from the USDA, his only one in 25 years, occurred when a friend stroked one of the animals, which he said is disallowed after a tiger grows older than 3 months.
He plans to spend more than $150,000 on the temporary sanctuary near the project site and hire two respected veterinarians, one to provide care if necessary and another to consult.
A self-described animal advocate for more than 25 years, Owenhouse said he disagrees with the notion that animals are inherently mistreated when in a human environment.
“Our animals are truly our family,” he said. “We love them dearly.”
They would come to Las Vegas from his private tiger sanctuary in Bozeman, Montana. He said the animals live in his home until they are 6 months old and receive affectionate training with positive-only interaction.
The tigers are featured prominently on Owenhouse’s family YouTube channel with his four children, all adults except for one teenager. Videos show him comfortably hugging, petting and bottle-feeding the big cats and even giving them whipped cream.
In one video posted in late April, Owenhouse addresses his thoughts on “Tiger King,” which he called “riveting TV” but also “sad.”
“I think that as a family that really loves and cares for animals and are huge animal advocates, it’s always sad to see animals that are being exploited,” he said. “And I think anytime that you bring animals into a human environment, they take a huge amount of time. They require a huge amount of love.”
He said they can thrive in such an environment if given the necessary time and space to roam.
Project faces uphill battle
County staffers initially recommended the commission deny the project, which would be set up on the east side of Las Vegas Boulevard and north of Dewey Drive, near Mandalay Bay and north of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. They ultimately recommended approval, however, after early concerns from public works and animal control departments were addressed during talks with the applicant that led to added conditions, such as frequent inspections.
But if the project is approved, it would require certain waivers. For instance, county animal control does not allow exotic or wild animal permits for operations more than 20 days, which is a much shorter period than the proposed length of the six-month show.
The Federal Aviation Administration would also have to be notified of the construction.
Owenhouse has vowed to keep armed security guards on site 24 hours a day and meet the safety procedures set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In addition to the 51-foot-tall show tent capable of seating 312 people, the project calls for a 3,150-square-foot stage and a 1,050-square-foot entry tent, according to county planning documents.
The tiger sanctuary would consist of two 1,050-square-foot containment areas, each featuring a sleeping cave and ground pool, with cages surrounded by a 10-foot-high wooden security fence. There would be 5 feet between the fence and containment area.
The county zoning commission meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the county government center. It will be the fifth time since May that the project has been expected to be heard by county lawmakers.
But after requesting multiple delays to ensure that the project had been thoroughly vetted, Owenhouse said that this time it will be heard.
An previous version of this story misstated the project’s location, and the recommendation of county staff toward the project. It was recommended for approval.