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Fantastic Beasts

Illustration of two coyotes and a flamingo in a car driving along the Las Vegas Strip.
Tim Bower

A field guide to the native and non-native animals of Las Vegas (including us humans)

Once, I saw a coyote outside of a Target in Las Vegas. He was confident, smiling, eyeing the street and waiting to cross. He understood the traffic patterns.

His resemblance to my tan-colored, pointy-eared dog was spooky. My dog who, on hot summer mornings, skitters with glee across the polished marble floor of the Bellagio, past Hermès, toward the craps tables. He likes the sound of slot machines, the scent of strangers’ suitcases rolling past him at eye level. Outside of Caesars Palace, he kisses tourists’ palms like a priest offering communion. “Are you on vacation?” they ask him. I tell them no; we live here, he’s a Vegas dog, a city dog. He prefers brunch on Fremont Street to hiking in the Spring Mountains. He refuses to swim in Lake Mead, sulks in the dirt on camping trips, as if he is wondering when we will return to a place where waiters pass him strips of bacon under a white tablecloth. He likes traffic, trash, parking garages.

My dog is a Vegas dog. Except no, not really. He’s a German shepherd mix, a breed that, according to the American Kennel Club, traces its lineage back to a 19th-century dog in Thuringia named Horand von Grafrath. Horand and his descendants were bred to watch over sheep in cold, foggy meadows. Unlike the coyotes in Las Vegas, they were designed to live elsewhere.

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In January 2022, a mountain lion was shot by police officers in a Las Vegas backyard. The homeowner who spotted the animal told the Las Vegas Review-Journal she was afraid to let her granddaughter ride her bicycle outside again.

A few months later,  a mountain lion was found sleeping in another Las Vegas backyard. Nearby schools went into lockdown. Officers were called to the scene. But the mountain lion ran away. The woman who first spotted the 70- to 80-pound animal spoke with bewilderment when she told 8 News Now, “That’s the scary part, that it’s still on the loose.”

Mountain lions are native to the Mojave Desert, but you’re not supposed to see them. They hunt at night. They don’t roar. They’re solitary, elusive, lethal. But in recent years, people have been encountering them in Las Vegas. Drought conditions have made prey scarce in mountain lions’ preferred habitat, forcing them into the city, where the same people who would gladly buy tickets to see a tiger on the Las Vegas Strip are astonished — and inconvenienced — by their existence.

People in Las Vegas are beginning to talk about mountain lions the way they’ve long talked about coyotes. But unlike mountain lions, coyotes aren’t coming into the city because they’re being forced out of nature; they’re coming into the city because they like living here. Coyotes are omnivorous, opportunistic. They eat rabbits, rodents, deer, insects, grass, and fruit, among other things. They can live in cold and warm climates. They can live among bears and wolves. They can live with us.

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And they’re smart. According to National Geographic, humans kill about 500,000 coyotes annually — but it doesn’t matter much; when their population is depleted, they respond by producing larger litters. When ranchers shoot at them and miss, it only teaches them how to avoid being shot at again. Some people buy spiked Kevlar vests to protect their small dogs from coyotes. Some people try to kill them. They curse them out when they see them trotting through neighborhoods. I hate these coyotes, they say. But they keep building golf courses and parks, planting trees, and creating artificial ponds. Coyotes have outsmarted us, or perhaps we are just very dumb; if we hate them so much, maybe we should stop constructing the exact environments where they thrive.

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Flamingos are not native to Las Vegas, and yet there is a flock living behind the eponymous hotel alongside brown pelicans, turtles, albino catfish, sturgeons, and koi. When I first moved to Vegas, I used to visit them at night. Leaning against the pink railing that barely separated us, I could sense them in the silent dark. It was a paradox: The blush of their feathers seemed like a showgirl’s costume. But the air was damp and rich, containing the smell of something too wild to ever be commodified.

And still, people feel entitled to the animals at the Flamingo. In 2012, three drunk Berkeley law students named Eric Cuellar, Justin Teixeira, and Hazhir Kargaran entered the wildlife habitat. They chased a 14-year-old helmeted guineafowl named Turk, caught it, strangled it, and decapitated the bird while tourists looked on from the buffet. Following their arrests, Cuellar and Kargaran were sentenced to community service and required to pay small fines. Teixeira, the man who had beheaded the bird, was sentenced to four years of probation after completing a prison boot camp program. According to his LinkedIn, he currently works as vice president of marketing for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in London. Guineafowls are native to Africa. Turk was the only one at the Flamingo.

A little more than a mile down the road lies the MGM Grand, where a pride of 20 lions rotated in and out of an enclosure on the casino floor for 13 years. I only saw them once, but the fever dream lingered: a tawny lion behind a glass wall, massive head on massive paws, claws contracting and releasing as he dreamed, mere feet from the gift shop. In 2010, a male lion lunged and bit a trainer inside the MGM habitat. The enclosure was soundproof, so no one could hear the man screaming. The video poker machines outside the clear walls purred and sang, dispensing and collecting money. When asked about the incident by ABC News, celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna said of the lions: “I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t be there.” In 2012, the MGM Grand renovated and replaced the lion habitat with a nightclub. The lions were sent away. It wasn’t that the resort had realized it was inhumane to keep them; they had simply become superfluous to the corporate vision.

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The animals at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage face a similar fate. In 2021, Hard Rock International purchased the Mirage with the intent to remodel it and build a guitar-shaped room tower. A petition was quickly launched to save the artificial volcano outside of the hotel, but public outcry over the fate of the resort’s tigers, leopards, lions, and bottlenose dolphins seemed nonexistent, save an article this year from the Nevada Current, which noted the dolphins in particular would probably not fit with the Hard Rock branding. Much like the lions at MGM Grand, the Mirage’s animals just don’t seem to align with the marketing plan anymore.

In April, a 13-year-old dolphin named Bella died of gastroenteritis at the Mirage. Ceta-Base, a non-profit organization that inventories captive marine life, traces her lineage back to the Gulf of Mexico, but she was born on the Las Vegas Strip. Her parents, Huf-n-Puf and Lightning, were born on the Las Vegas Strip. Her daughter, Lady Ace, was born on the Las Vegas Strip. What does it mean to be native when you’re a dolphin living in a tank at a casino, performing tricks under the hot Mojave sky as tourists watch, frozen margaritas sweating in their hands? What does it mean to be a creature native to the ocean when the desert is all you’ve ever known? Four generations of dolphins have lived on the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve only been here for seven years, and I have the audacity to call myself a local.

In Las Vegas, we like the animals we import, cage, and use for entertainment. They are sacred to us. The flamingos are the Flamingo. The lions are MGM Grand. The dolphins are the Mirage. But turning a wild animal into a corporate symbol is not love, no matter how beautiful that animal looks when he waves his rosy wings in the heat, lets loose a roar that unlocks something within you, breaches the surface of the pool, appearing poised to take flight. Oh, but we love them so much, we tell ourselves, so much that we rattle their cages when they refuse to pose for photos, we complain when they are not interesting enough or pretty enough, we enter their habitats to touch them, to chase them, to demand more. We love them very much when they entertain us, when they pretend to be in on the joke. Our love is conditional. We want to control how they get here, where they will live, and how they will behave. We don’t want them showing up in our neighborhoods, unannounced.

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Once, I heard a coyote howling from a drugstore parking lot. It was late summer, not quite dawn yet. Silence for a moment, and then the responses began. Coyotes have about a dozen different vocalizations. I heard them all: yips, barks, lonesome wails, frenzied laughter. Their collective noise was chaotic, but their intention was anything but. They were conducting a census, I realized. They were saying I live here again and again. Φ