As We See It

Death of a big cat

Lions, Christians and the mechanics of blame

Sign outside the lion habitat at the Las Vegas Zoo.
Photo: Ryan Olbrysh

Remember, it could have been their fault. There was an opportunity, if only for a few days, to assign blame. That’s the thing—someone really did throw objects over the wall from the Catholic Charities Thrift Store property into the lion pen at the Las Vegas Zoo. And so, when Midas, a 10-year-old lion, got very sick, and there was a chewed-up half of a toy football in his cage, the first thing zoo director Pat Dingle thought was that the Roman Catholics killed his lion. Out of “malice or idiocy” or both.

Dingle had raised this lion and his sister, Maniac Girl, from cubhood, bottle-fed them, played every morning with them. In early June, without any forewarning, he found his biggest cat lying in its small dirt habitat on Rancho Boulevard, dying. Vets were called, X-rays were taken, something was in Midas’ intestines, but surgery would be risky and recovery painful, so Dingle chose to euthanize Midas.

Grief turned into anger and the need to blame someone, the way it often will. It’s nonsensical, like cancer and zoos. And religion. But there it was. So the battle of the Christians and lions swirled into a feeding frenzy, the colosseum filled with media and animal-rights activists and persecution motifs. There was an underpinning of charitable intentions and an air of poverty—a nonprofit thrift store for poor people; a poor zoo that’s been struggling for 29 years waiting for some charity. The two were going head-to-head over a football. Over a fence. Over an unexpected death.

The story went out in multiple outlets: We pictured derelict Catholics flinging unsalable thrift-store toys into the zoo—were they trying to lighten the load for the bored lions? We pictured scrappy zookeepers struggling to maintain Serengeti wildlife in an exhaust-choked, chain-linked block of Vegas. Everybody’s intentions seemed at once sad and misguided and understandable.

Quickly, Monsignor Patrick Leary went on Channel 13 to express his horror and grief and promised to investigate his side of the fence, saying, “Indeed, if we are in any way culpable we’ll make full restitution.” Dingle, perhaps a touch less cautious, told the TV crew, “This is just a horrendous thing some mindless moron [did], who thought this will be cool.”

Not to be found inadequately accusatory, PETA sent a letter to the media calling for the USDA to revoke the zoo’s license, saying it “keeps dispirited animals ... in cramped cages” and should have responded to initial bouts with foreign objects earlier to prevent it from happening again.

Dingle stayed on the offensive. He’s run this odd little nonprofit compound of chickens and emus and monkeys for nearly 30 years, and is not apologetic about it. Of the PETA letter, he said, “That’s just standard PETA, which we disregard.” The zoo put signs up around the lion pen attacking Catholic Charities: “Employees at Catholic Charities are frequently throwing trash, old toys, ect., over our 18’ fence into the lions exhibit. Midas ate one resulting in great suffering. On 6-3-09 ... they did it again! Please help us be calling Catholic Charities at [phone number] and [phone number] and demand they stop this outragious behavior, please. And let them know what you think of their employees attack on our lions. We need your help to stop this.”

Catholic Charities spokesperson Sharon Mann said “seven or eight” people called. She said she was very sorry about this series of events. “It wasn’t an ongoing thing, but there were occasional things thrown over.” But, she noted, as soon as they heard about Midas’ death, Catholic Charities officials put a lock on the Dumpster in their parking lot, from which, they suspected, strangers they did not know or endorse were removing items and hurling them into the lion pen, out of malice or idiocy.

“In the past, the lion had actually tried to dig a hole under the fence and get out, like a dog,” Mann said. “They [the lions] get bored. And some time ago they [zookeepers] put up a solid metal fence [10 feet of corrugated steel] to give the lion more privacy.”

This was not going well for anyone, least of all Midas and Maniac Girl, the latter of whom was left to mourn her brother and only pen-mate by herself. A few days after Midas’ death, M.G. was moping. A zookeeper roared at her and tried to get her to roar back—a tactic that seems to have had some success in the human world. M.G. made one guttural growl and sat down.

A few days later, Mann and the monsignor had a meeting at the zoo with Dingle. They emerged with some announcements: Catholic Charities would close the thrift store, and the lion died of cancer. No football was in his intestines; the necropsy showed he had tumors. And the store was not being closed because of the controversy but because of the economy.

None of this, apparently, could be pinned on anyone. This allowed the blame to spread in an aimless way, affecting bystanders and zookeepers alike. Everyone in town shrugged. And grieved.

Back in the zoo, a zookeeper told visitors M.G. had thrashed her ears on the fence in despair upon losing her brother, resulting in cuts. She fed the lion antibiotics stuck in raw chicken, and posted another sign asking visitors to pay extra attention to the lonely cat.

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