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Not quite a zoo: How the Mirage made exotic animals part of its brand

Updated July 11, 2024 - 1:46 pm

Samantha Sage was always an animal lover, and some of her favorite parts of her job as a stagehand for the Siegfried and Roy show at The Mirage were the cues where she worked alongside some seemingly ferocious creatures.

Sage recalls sitting off-stage with a black panther, Macumba, as he sat in his illusion box before going on stage for the act.

“This black panther would look up at me with those yellow eyes. I’d blow on him and he’d purr,” Sage said of the cue she ran twice nightly for seven years. “Yes, I was a stagehand running props and setting up lights, but I got to do so much more.”

Exotic animals spent years living in their own slice of tropics within the desert – Siegfried and Roy’s iconic white tigers and other big cats, but also dolphins, tropical fish and other animals – and more had hotel rooms of their own for more than three decades. That’ll soon change as current operator Hard Rock International prepares to close the property on July 17. The company plans a three-year renovation of the site, transforming it into the Hard Rock Las Vegas – complete with a 660 foot-tall guitar-shaped hotel tower near Las Vegas Boulevard.

As the tropics go out and music themes come in, former employees and observers of the hotel-casino that reinvented the modern Las Vegas experience reflect on how those animals will tie into The Mirage’s legacy.

‘They gave (them) the moon and the stars’

Alan Feldman, a former public relations executive at The Mirage, said Steve Wynn’s iconic resort always planned to incorporate animals because of the property’s tropic theme. But there was another factor that supported the idea.

“Part of it was that Steve was an animal lover,” Feldman said. “There were always dogs in the office.”

Julie Wignall, the former director of the Siegfried and Roy Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, said the exhibits sought to exceed standards for animal care from their inception. Wignall and the property’s architects studied best practices at top aquariums and zoos around the country to get ideas for the sanctuary setup and management.

The Mirage also became an educational opportunity for local Las Vegans. For many, it was their first exposure to dolphins and other non-domesticated animals. Wignall and the resort staff ran educational programs for Clark County school children that welcomed them to tour the facility before opening in the mornings.

Feldman and Wignall said the resort was able to invest heavily into animal care and educational programming because of its business strategy. Other zoos and aquariums were mostly nonprofit organizations, so they constantly had to work on fundraising.

“The habitat was not a money-making imperative,” Feldman said. “If all you own is a habitat, then you obviously live and die by the ticket sales. It was an attraction at The Mirage, but it wasn’t going to make or break the financial picture so we had the luxury of being able to do some of these things that were far too expensive for a nonprofit or other for-profit environment.”

For Wignall, that meant improvements like three on-staff veterinarians compared to the industry standard of two, top-of-the-line habitats and special arrangements for food. She even was able to identify where the dolphins’ feed fish were caught – down to the latitude and longitude – and tested them for heavy metals.

“Everybody said to me, ‘Oh Steve is a big businessman. Don’t trust anything they tell you,’” Wignall said. “But I asked for the moon and the stars for the animals, and he gave it to me and the animals.”

Siegfried and Roy’s show

Central to the resort’s animal themes was Siegfried and Roy’s famous magic show. The German illusionists used white tigers, lions, leopards and an elephant throughout the show’s 12-year run. It was such a hit that the resort continued to sell merchandise related to the show through the resort’s last months of operation, though the show closed after a tiger mauled Roy Horn during an October 2003 performance.

Bette Gaines-Snyder was a dancer in Siegfried and Roy shows going back to their run at the Frontier. She recalls the occasional supervised visits between dancers and tiger cubs, and birthday parties and other celebrations with Gilda the elephant. Her favorite illusion was when the magicians made Gilda disappear.

“Other magicians would feature tigers or lions, but not an elephant,” Gaines-Snyder said. “The scale was unmatched.”

A grand scale was exactly what the magicians and the show’s production company, Feld Entertainment, were going for. Wayne Murphey, a former vice president of entertainment for the company, said there were fans that saw the show hundreds of times. Famous fans included Michael Jackson and Jerry Garcia.

“We haven’t seen what Steve Wynn and Kenneth Feld (CEO of Feld Entertainment) put together and created, we don’t see that anymore,” he said. “They always said, ‘build something unique that you have to come to Las Vegas to see. That’s number one. Then have them leave wanting more.”

An unmatched legacy

Though the Siegfried and Roy’s show run ended in tragedy and Horn was paralyzed until his death in May 2020, exotic cats continued to live at the resort’s habitat until recent years.

More recently, the dolphin habitat closed after its own tragedies. MGM Resorts International and Hard Rock announced the closure in fall 2022, before the sale was complete, following the deaths of three dolphins that year. Hard Rock officials said about a dozen big cats were relocated to two sanctuaries in 2023.

Some animals remained a part of The Mirage until the end. The roughly 350 exotic fish, located in a 20,000-gallon saltwater tank behind the resort’s front desk, were recently relocated to Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium.

“It was a privilege to oversee the Habitat for the short time and it was clearly evident, not only the genuine and extensive care by MGM and the Mirage employees, but love for the dolphins and cats that was shared by so many working here,” Joe Lupo, the property’s president, said in a statement.

Former employees of the show and habitats believe the exotic animals will forever be linked to The Mirage.

“It’ll always be a legacy that other Las Vegas shows have tried to emulate, but never quite matched it,” Gaines-Synder said. “When you think of the Mirage, you think of white tigers and Siegfried and Roy.”

Contact McKenna Ross at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on X.

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