Weekly Q&A: Amid protests and backlash, magician Dirk Arthur brings big cats back

There aren’t many Las Vegas Strip acts still featuring exotic animals. Dirk Arthur’s Wild Illusions at the Riviera is one of them.
Photo: Nick Coletsos

Productions featuring exotic animals were once renowned and plentiful in Las Vegas, due largely to the popularity of Siegfried & Roy’s long-running stage show at the Mirage. But in the spring of 2012, the white tigers and snow leopards vanished as both Dirk Arthur and Rick Thomas closed their productions a month apart at O’Sheas and V Theater at Miracle Mile Shops, respectively.

After headlining at Harrah’s in Laughlin and Reno, Arthur just returned those creatures to the Strip at the Riviera, where his Wild Illusions debuted at Starlite Theater at the start of December. Seven exotic cats take the stage as Arthur blends classic magic, giant illusions and comedy.

The show has drawn criticism and protest from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some of Arthur’s fellow entertainers (such as tribute-artist Stephen Sorrentino) for its exhibition of animals. In December 2013 and February of this year, Arthur was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for safety infractions related to their care. He has addressed those concerns, centered on using declawed animals and the size and conditions of their cages. He is in compliance with safety agencies, and clear to perform at the Riv.

On December 4, Arthur took a seat in the Starlite Theater and talked about his return to the Strip.

We’re sitting in seats covered in zebra stripes, like an African-safari motif, which seems appropriate. I super-like it, yeah (laughs). It’s perfect for my show. This has been in place for years, but I’ll take credit for it when people say, “That’s pretty cool how you designed the room with that wild-animal theme.” But it was put in for La Cage to kind of hip up the room.

How has the show changed since we last saw it? We’re keeping a certain amount of the classic illusions that repeat customers love to see, the helicopter and the big stuff with the cats. What I’ve been doing over the past two and a half years at the venues in Reno and Laughlin is sort of perfecting the show for when I got back on the Strip. We didn’t know what kind of venue we were going to use, whether it was going to be big with large sets and scenery and eight dancers, or this type of theater, which is more of a medium-size venue similar to what we were using in Reno and Laughlin.

But it’s still a major production, right? This is a very large, spectacular magic show, even though this is a 535-seat showroom. We’ll have one of the biggest magic shows in Vegas, easily. We have a levitating car that floats 12 feet above the stage and disappears. A 26-foot-long helicopter appears. I’m escaping from a 12-foot-tall drill of death and reappearing on the other side of the theater. In my career, I’ve become very adept at staging big illusions in small theaters.

Are you always going to use the cats in your show? Yeah, I love working with the cats. I love training them and working with them. People don’t understand that they are very affectionate. We form lifelong bonds with the cats. There are a few people who think animals shouldn’t be in entertainment, but those people are the same ones who think we should not eat hamburgers, or eat chicken or have eggs.

Do you think all of the complaints about your show are completely unfounded? Aren’t there some genuinely reasonable concerns about the care and handling of these animals? It’s ridiculous. I don’t want to comment too much, because there have been a lot of untruths spoken about me recently, about the cats. People are a little confused, but we treat our animals unbelievably awesome. They are like our children. They are spoiled. Everything we do is in accordance with every single law and regulation. The performance is very gentle. We are not forcing them to do anything. We have an incredible endangered species-breeding program, which is very successful. We do great educational work with the cats.

We do some great stuff. The show is fun, it’s entertainment, it’s illusion, it’s for profit. I think it’s just kind of silly. I think anybody who complains about the show has never seen the show.

You are the only entertainer to perform this particular type of show. Does that makes you a single target? Here’s the thing, everyplace that has animals, some people will complain. All the major zoos, breeding programs and educational facilities. A lot of people don’t like dog shows. A lot of people don’t like rodeos. If people have concerns, they can come see the show and see what we do. As a matter of fact, we were rehearsing in front of the cats today, and the crew was kidding me because of how much I baby the cats.

Wild Illusions Saturday-Thursday, 7 p.m., $40-$80. Riviera, 702-794-9433.

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