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Las Vegas Zoo: Two years later

Las Vegas Zoo: Two years later

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Jul 25, 2011

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) - Some people are surprised to hear Las Vegas has a zoo.

We do... but should we?

That's the question being asked by the Humane Society of the United States and many Action News viewers.

It's been two years since Contact 13 first exposed conditions at the Las Vegas Zoo.

Now, Chief Investigator Darcy Spears goes back to ask what's changed, and whether it's enough?

A spiderweb of cracks in a boa constrictor's cage... A dead baby peacock no one knew was there... Conditions indicative of the Las Vegas Zoo as a whole according to patrons, animal welfare advocates and exotic animal experts.

"It tears my heart apart to watch these animals.  I can't even go back in there," said recent zoo visitor Lindsay Roach.

"Those animals suffer in silence," said animal welfare advocate Linda Faso.

"There's just an overwhelming feeling of oppression and sadness at this place," added HSUS Regulatory Specialist Lisa Wathne after a visit to the zoo in early July.

Contact 13 first began investigating the Las Vegas Zoo two years ago.  With help from the Humane Society of the United States, we uncovered conditions that were too hot, too dirty, too small and overrun by pigeons and flies.

"Progress report.  Where are we two years after the fact?" Darcy Spears asked Wathne.
Lisa Wathne: "Well, from what I can tell, we are not much further along, if at all."

The zoo meets USDA minimum standards.  They're not violating the law.

But many say the conditions are simply inadequate. And that due to little private funding and no city support, there's no reasonable prospect of turning it around.

After her visit there in early July, Lisa Wathne told Contact 13, "Animals don't have adequate shade.  There are improper social groupings. Cages are tiny and barren.  It's a depressing and a sad place and an embarrassment to the City of Las Vegas."

The USDA was just there a few months ago doing a full-scale inspection and they didn't write the zoo up for any violations.  But we just learned a new complaint has been filed and USDA has opened a new investigation.

"I think that the animals are amazingly cared for and loved," said Jeannie Akins, the zoo's animal care manager.

But Lisa Wathne points out the bird who plucked out all its chest feathers, the solitary lioness in her small enclosure, and adds, "The reptile house should be bulldozed.  It's an abomination."

But the zoo has answers for everything.

"You have an elderly cat there.  She may or may not take to that other animal," Akins says about the lioness.

As for the lack of shade and other ways to keep cool?

"We use the hose to cool down their exhibits several times a day and if the animal chooses we'll water them down as well but some of them don't like it," Akins explains.

What about animals that don't belong in the desert?

"We don't accept any animal that doesn't do well in our climate."

And then, there's Terry.

"Chimpanzee's are incredibly intelligent and social beings.  It is downright cruel to keep a chimpanzee alone and no respectable zoo would do that," Wathne says.

Terry has been at the Las Vegas Zoo for 15 years

"There's no way that animal is leaving here," says Zoo Director Pat Dingle with an air of defiance.  "To uproot him and send him off to some unknown place, that would be torture."
Darcy: "Sending him to a sanctuary would be torture?"
Pat: "Would be cruel.  Would absolutely be cruel to HIM."

He says Terry needs people, not other chimps, because people are what he grew up with.

"Well that's a smoke screen," says Linda Faso, who believes the zoo needs Terry to draw visitors.

"I don't think Pat's heart is in the wrong place," Faso says.  "I think he cares about the animals to a degree.  He doesn't care enough."

Earlier this month local resident Lindsay Roach left the zoo in tears and wrote letters about dirty cages, dirty water and listless animals to animal welfare groups and the zoo itself.

"It's very, very sad to watch these animals live the life they are living," Roach said.

The Las Vegas Zoo has never been an accredited facility: one that meets standards set by the industry Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Pat Dingle: "We've never even looked into it.  It doesn't make any difference to us."
Darcy: "Those are higher standards, from what we're told."
Pat: "Well so what?  There's also thousands of dollars in dues that I'd rather spend on the animals."

The Humane Society of the United States believes the Las Vegas Zoo simply can't meet those standards.

Pat Dingle: "Animal rights, this, that, they have their agenda."
Darcy: "Their agenda from what we can tell and from what they say is the best possible care for animals."
Pat: "Right.  And the people saying that are clueless."

Jeannie Akins says the zoo is an important educational resource for local children.

"We have schools that come with 150 kids, I mean, you don't want to close that down!  You don't want to turn kids away."

"It's been 30 years.  You haven't been able to realize your dream.  At what point do you throw in the towel?" Spears asked Dingle.

"Easy.  When I'm dead," he said.

Another issue that keeps coming up is the San Diego Zoo's support of the Las Vegas Zoo. 

They often send animals there, which critics say is shameful. 

The San Diego Zoo says they know Las Vegas needs help and that's what they're trying to do.

The zoo has no plans to shut down and in light of that, they're asking for help to become bigger and better.

As a non-profit corporation they welcome donations of any kind, be it money, volunteer time or supplies.

We've posted the entire interviews with HSUS and zoo staff in conjunction with this story.

Also, we'd like to hear from you.

Email your comments to or post on our Facebook page.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.