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Where Everything Grows

African cats find a home in the Nevada desert

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

 

Before the start of any MGM-produced film 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.

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The Hollywood appeal of the big cats drew Los Angeles-based photographer Morgan Lieberman 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