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Zoo story more complicated

I probably didn’t need to see the video of a half-naked Pat Dingle standing in his doorway and jousting with a TV crew. Dingle, the longtime proprietor of the now defunct Las Vegas Zoo, wasn’t happy to have reporters banging on his door or peeking in his windows, so it appears he got into an ill-advised scuffle, sans shirt, while the camera was rolling. (Thank goodness he was wearing pants when they banged on his door.)

It is tempting to characterize Dingle as the evil owner of a failed zoo, a guy who didn’t take very good care of his menagerie of exotic animals, but the truth is more complicated than the inch-deep impressions being foisted on the public. For one thing, it is a bit presumptuous to call that place a zoo. It has always been closer to a backyard collection of critters than an actual zoo, at times an embarrassment to a community that prides itself on being a first-class destination. Dingle gets some of the blame for failing to turn it into something larger and grander, a zoo worthy of Las Vegas. But he sure as hell isn’t alone in that failure. Nor is it fair to paint him as a dastardly profiteer who’s been living off of the cuddly faces and zany antics of exotic animals.

My impression is that Dingle always hoped his collection would grow into something worthy of being called a zoo. Over the years, he’s heard all kinds of promises from people with money about turning the place into something special. The promises always fizzled, and Dingle has had to scramble and scrape just to keep his animals fed. If not for the work of his animal-loving volunteers, the situation for the animals could have been much worse.

If Dingle wanted to be the ultimate bad guy, he could have made a pile of quick money by selling off every one of his exotic critters to the breeders and roadside zoo folks who are the true exploiters of exotic animals, the folks whose only interest in animals is how much money can be made from them by recklessly breeding and selling the babies. From what I have been told, Dingle has agreed to allow the transfer of many of his most sensitive creatures to top-notch facilities where they can live out their lives in much better conditions. Terry the Chimp, for instance, has lived by himself in a cage for many years but will now be going to a world-class chimp sanctuary where he will be able to socialize with his own kind. (I first met Terry more than a decade ago and he is quite a character.) Ditto for the Barbary Apes, who will be going to a sanctuary.

People familiar with the scene at the shutdown zoo say it’s been a bit of a free for all for other animals though, and it is not exactly clear where all of them have gone. Trucks have been seen loading up at the zoo for the past week. At least some of the exotics have been grabbed by animal outfits that have terrible reputations as low-class exploitation operations. USDA inspectors have been on the scene to do what they can but their authority only extends so far. I have been told they are greatly relieved that Dingle has cooperated with them instead of forcing the government to go to court to try and rescue some of the endangered species.

Dingle had a dream of creating a world class zoo for Las Vegas. For various reasons, it never happened. People who know him say that, at some point, he grew tired of begging for help, scraping by on handouts, and that he sort of gave up. That’s when things went downhill for the animals in his care.

It’s good to know that at least some of the animals from his collection will be going to much better homes. And maybe Dingle’s long, losing battle to open a world-class zoo will drive home the point to others who might have animal aspirations that it is a tough and expensive racket, and that you’d better not county on people keeping their promises.

St. Pat’s Day:

The glowing tributes I read last week to outgoing water boss Pat Mulroy were enough to gag a maggot, elevating Mulroy to sainthood and absolving her of any responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in. It is always welcome to see fellow journalists pay some attention to water issues once in awhile but disheartening to see, once again, how shallow their understanding is.

My brilliant friend and colleague Steve Sebelius, for instance, decided to dip his tootsies into these waters for the first time in quite a while, long enough to explain that Pat Mulroy is not responsible for our runaway growth. And of course, that is true. Mulroy has never built or sold a single house, but those who have followed water politics closely know that she has been an enabler and chief cheerleader for relentless growth, and that it didn’t have to be that way. My friend Steve thinks Mulroy gets a pass because she was merely following orders - sort of like a good German soldier - and would have been replaced if she had done otherwise. That position is incredibly shallow given there were other alternatives that would have allowed for growth without sacrificing a huge swath of rural Nevada, but St. Pat never wanted to pursue other options. Instead, she spent $100 million or so on the pipeline plan, which she still says will be a last resort (except for when she says it is our only option).

The rabidly pro-growth RJ despises any and all government spending, not a penny for widows or orphans or the hungry, but doesn’t say squat about Mulroy’s drunken sailor tendencies, such as the $250 million spent on an over-hyped water park, the sweetheart contracts for the likes of Wolfgang Puck and high powered lobbyists, the expensive PR contracts, the highest salaries by far for her employees, or the foreign travel perks. In its own paean to St. Pat, the Las Vegas Sun calls those things “minor.”

Now that everyone has written their water story for their year, they can all go back to ignoring the very real and very complicated issues that still face the community, issues that have not only been ignored by my media brethren, but also by St. Pat herself.

George Knapp is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.