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Animal activists mum on big cats

Open a newspaper or flip on the television, and you’ll often be reminded that Nevada is teeming with animal lovers who aren’t shy about having their voices heard.

In the south, the diminutive Las Vegas Zoo recently closed its doors after 33 years. Although several factors were involved in the zoo’s demise, animal rights activists shouted loud and long against the facility. With assistance from Agriculture Department officials, zookeeper Pat Dingle’s animals and birds have been moved to licensed zoos and sanctuaries, mostly in other states.

Travel farther north, and the state’s free-roaming wild horse population is a popular topic for animal lovers.

They fight ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, processing plants and state and federal lawmakers in the name of their love of Nevada’s mustangs and burros.

But when it comes to the dangerous proliferation of big cats such as lions and tigers in the homes of private owners throughout the state, the roar of protest from Nevada’s devoted animal rights activists is reduced to gentle meow.

The near silence feels especially egregious in the wake of the positively purring press coverage of the recent 10th anniversary of the mauling of big-cat illusionist Roy Horn, the animal-expert half of the Strip’s legendary Siegfried &Roy magic act.

On Oct. 3, 2003, Horn was nearly killed on stage in front of a stunned audience of 1,500 when he was bitten in the neck and dragged off the stage at The Mirage by the white tiger Montecore. Although animal behavior experts have said the incident had the signs of an attack, Horn has persisted in countering that tiger was only trying to protect his friend and trainer.

What the attack and the extended anniversary remembrance haven’t generated has been a large outcry of protest from Nevada’s animal rights activists.

That’s nothing new. With the exception of a controversy surrounding an orangutan act two decades ago, the use of animals for casino showroom entertainment has rarely generated much criticism.

Maybe our state’s animal lovers ought to take a closer look at the obvious problem of the private ownership of big cats in Nevada.

Nationwide since 1990, more than 300 big cat incidents have occurred, 18 in Nevada, according to admittedly incomplete records kept by the U.S. Humane Society. Only about 400 of the approximately 7,000 big cats in captivity in the country are actually in accredited zoos.

The rest are owned privately.

Sixteen adults and four children have been killed. Of the total incidents documented by the Humane Society, five have occurred in Pahrump and 10 were in Las Vegas with its long history of using lions and tigers in casino acts.

Although the Horn mauling made international headlines, you don’t have to search far to find other dramatic and even deadly examples of big cat attacks in Nevada.

In September 2010, an adult lion attacked a trainer at the MGM Grand lion exhibit, according to the Humane Society. A similar incident occurred at the facility in December 2008.

In October 2007, a cougar at Pahrump’s Running Wild animal compound escaped its holding pen and attacked a woman during feeding time, biting her severely on the neck. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to protect her.

Although a Pahrump woman only lost part of a finger after being bitten by a “pet” leopard in February 2003, a trainer lost his life in Las Vegas in March 2001 after he was mauled by a tiger owned by Safari Wildlife. Take a wild guess where the tiger bit him.

Instead of a groundswell of pickets and shouts of protest over the obvious problems and danger inherent with the ownership of big cats, our animal lovers remain as quiet as kittens.

Although experts observe that big cats prefer to go for the throat, it appears the animals have already got the activists’ tongues.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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