I love Las Vegas, for many reasons. I love that it exists, I love that it celebrates excess in the tackiest way possible, I love that, unless you've gone in with the silly idea that you're actually going to win money, it's a place where low expectations keep spirits high.
And I love Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden, located behind the Mirage Hotel and Casino, just a line of trees away from the "adult" (read: naked!) pool and lounge.
The German illusionists don't perform at the Mirage anymore (obviously), but their legacy remains in the form of this wildlife conservation center. When the act closed after 13 straight years of performance, the animals from the show, used to life at the Mirage and around people, are now part of a public animal display. In addition to the famous white tigers and lions, there are big cats of a more usual color, black panthers, a jaguar cub (complete with attentive keeper) and, curiously, a little herd of alpacas.
(Rumor has it that somewhere on the premises is that tiger from "the incident." But it's not like there's a sign nearby that says "AND THIS IS THE ONE THAT ATE ROY," and the keeper in the jaguar cage doesn't seem inclined to answer that kind of question, so that's a rumor that will have to remain unsubstantiated.)
"These cats are male," a keeper warns us as we enter the garden. "You might not want to get too close to the cages. You never know when they're going to spray." She's dead serious, but we laugh when she says it. We stand as close to the cages as the guard rails will let us, and so does everyone else who's come to animal watch. Or we do, until one of the elderly orange tigers limps out of his pool, turns his back on the gathering audience, and lifts his tail. The crowd takes a collective step backwards. Mothers lift their slow-moving children out of the way while the able-bodied elbow each other in the fight to be the one standing the furthest from the bars. All while the stale sulfur smell of cat urine settles in the air like an old raincoat on a coat rack.
But the best thing about the Secret Garden, the pièce de résistance in my humble opinion, has nothing to do with the animals. It's the large, scenic woodcut fixed to the back of the gift shop - blond wood carved and painted to depict a be-robed Siegfried and Roy leading a host of exotic animals, two by two, into the belly of a resplendent ark. The placard on the wall beside it explains that it was crafted and donated by a group of Romanian nuns, one of them being Siegfried's own sister, a gift of thanks to the entertainers for the help given towards building the nuns a new orphanage. The sentiment is very heartfelt but the product very... I think it might be most polite to call it "European." The end result is so deliciously Las Vegas that it is simply not to be missed.