|By Delen Goldberg, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 28, 2011--The MGM Grand is losing its lions. Resort officials announced Wednesday the property's iconic lion habitat will close permanently Jan. 31.
"That is part of an overall property-wide renovation project," MGM Resorts spokeswoman Yvette Monet said. "There are going to be significant changes in the casino and hotel."
MGM officials would not say what will replace the $9 million, 5,000-square-foot, glass-encased structure.
"We're always assessing our properties to determine how we can provide a new and fresh product to our customers," Monet said.
MGM Resorts in October began a $160 million remodel of the MGM Grand. Each of the main tower's 3,570 hotel rooms and 642 suites will receive a makeover, and operators plan to overhaul the property's casino floor, restaurants, clubs and showrooms. The project is expected to take about a year.
The lion habitat opened in 1999. Twenty lions rotate in and out of the exhibit, where they nap, wrestle and play. Visitors can view them from the perimeter of the habitat or through a glass tunnel that cuts through the exhibit. The free attraction is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Come February, the out-of-work lions will return to The Cat House, an 8.5-acre ranch outside Las Vegas where they live with trainer and habitat designer Keith Evans. He cares for 40 lions that have appeared at the hotel at some point in their lives.
Monet said there are no plans to return the lions to a different part of the MGM Grand.
Evans said he found out that the habitat was closing through an email. His contract with the hotel group was due to expire in 2009 but had been extended several times.
"We were just caught off guard," he said. "I never understand corporate thinking. The lion is the hotel's logo, but times change I guess, and we're a free show."
Evans plans to open The Cat House to the public or to private tour groups. He has received the permits he needs but is still working out operating details.
"To have it open daily requires more employees," said Evans, who cares for the lions with his wife and 14 workers. "But if you don't have enough tourists, then it's an even bigger hit financially."
As it stands, Evans said, he may have to downsize his operation and let some employees go now that he has lost his contract with MGM. He no longer needs workers to transport the animals to and from the Strip.
The lion has been a part of MGM's brand for decades, and Evans' lions are reportedly descendants of Leo, the most recent lion mascot used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
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