African cats find a home in the Nevada desert

At the Lion Habitat Ranch, Las Vegas’ famous show felines live out their twilight years.

  • Visitors take a photos in front of one of the lions at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, Nevada. It is the only animal sanctuary similar to a zoo where people can learn about exotic animals near Las Vegas.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • California resident Pam Bell gathered her friends and family for a birthday weekend trip to Las Vegas where they had a “Feast With The Beasts,” and activity that provides a group with a private catered dinner and tour of the facility after hours.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • One of the dozen of lions that have lived in the Henderson sanctuary since the early 1990s.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • The leftover hair from the lions is kept on a shelf, where it is sold as a souvenir item in the gift shop. The lions are bathed and groomed monthly.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Keith Evans, President and owner of the Lion Habitat Ranch, feeds the lions from inside their cages.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Keith Evans holds raw meat that is distributed to the lions multiple times a day by himself and the trainers.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Guests of the Lion Habitat Ranch’s “Feast With The Beasts” dinner party visit Ozzie’s stall, a young giraffe that can paint using his tongue, a paintbrush, and a canvas held up by a facility volunteer.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Cristina Cuellar, the lead trainer of the Lion Habitat Ranch, shares a moment with one of the lions that she helped raise at the facility.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Linda Lagoy, a volunteer for the Lion Habitat Ranch, feeds the lions through their cage.

    Morgan Lieberman
  • Lions spend a majority of their day lounging in the sun and sleeping, even while being on display for hundreds of visitors a week.

    Morgan Lieberman

 

Before the start of any MGM-produced film, a lion looks right, looks left and then roars two times before the first scene fades in. That iconic introduction has made the MGM lion a celebrity in its own right — and now, thanks to that legacy, some of its descendants have a home at the Lion Habitat Ranch in Henderson, Nevada. For 13 years, they had day jobs filling a live exhibit at the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Since they retired in 2012, they attract school groups and other visitors to the ranch, where refuge staffers teach lion conservation and introduce the students to the other African and Australian animals, including emus, tortoises, ostriches and a particularly imaginative giraffe that paints.

Keith Evans, the owner of the sanctuary, raises the lions as part of his lifelong passion. The retired lions, though their days on the strip are long over, still get star-quality treatment. Evans and a team of trainers feed them raw meat by hand, bathe them monthly, and have a resident caretaker who lives on site, and wakes up by 4 a.m. to care for them.

The Lion Habitat Ranch is a nonprofit educational zoo that functions as an exotic wildlife refuge center and is permitted by the Department of Agriculture to exhibit lions and other wild animals. It costs about $10,000 per year to feed a male lion, and $8,000 to feed the average female each year. The $25 fees from visiting tourists and from special events go directly to the care of the animals. While lions usually live 7 to 12 years in the wild, the 36 cats that inhabit the sanctuary can reach ages 20 years or more.

The Hollywood appeal of the big cats drew Los Angeles-based photographer Morgan Leiberman to the ranch. As she photographed the cats, she was struck by how much noise they make — not always that cacophonous roar of their predecessor in the credits, but purrs and guttural chatter that fill up the hot desert air. Brooke Warren, associate photo editor