LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – While the era of exotic animals entertaining Las Vegas audiences has pounced, the last performer on the Las Vegas Strip to utilize big cats in their show has died, survived by his tigers, leopards, and bobcat left with an uncertain future.
Dirk Arthur – whose legal name is Dirk Gingell – is from a different time of Las Vegas magicians. From the Jubilee show of the 90s to The Silverton, The Tropicana, and The Riviera: fans remember the 63-year-old for providing their first sight of a levitating car vanishing from stage or a helicopter appearing out of thin air.
But, the glamor faded this week as close friends, like fellow magician Jay Owenhouse, learned of his untimely death just a couple weeks before his 64th birthday.
“I used to always tease him and call him ‘the smiling magician’ because he was always very happy when he was performing,” Owenhouse said next to a striped tent across the street from The Mandalay Bay Resort Friday morning. “He was a staple in Las Vegas for over 30 years.”
Arthur’s last show with his cats began at The Westgate Resort in 2015, Owenhouse says, considered the last Las Vegas act to utilize exotic animals. A representative of the resort told 8 News Now that he worked as an usher at its International Theater and Cabaret in recent years.
Owenhouse says he purchased Arthur’s south-valley property while establishing a magic show of his own. Arthur, in turn, had his eyes set on opening a new show in Branson, Missouri that would include his 10 cats, Owenhouse said.
But, that vision never became reality as his body was discovered unresponsive in his bedroom by a roommate on Sunday, Owenhouse says. The Clark County Coroner is still investigating his death as of Friday morning, just one week after Owenhouse says he saw the 63-year-old for the last time while landscaping his backyard.
“He was happy. He was joking. I think he was excited about the opportunity in Branston,” Owenhouse said. “The ambulance had said it had been a couple of days before he was discovered.”
Now, the future of these same animals that dazzled audiences for years is unclear, along with the potential for them to see stage lights again.
Clark County confirmed to 8 News Now that six tigers, two clouded leopards, one snow leopard, and one bobcat were retrieved from Arthur’s property by animal protection services this week. Linda Faso knows each by name.
The self-proclaimed independent animal rights activist has a folder three inches thick in her Southwest Valley home filled with USDA complaints, animal inventory storage recordings, and inspection reports of Arthur’s home, where his cats resided. She says she’s kept tabs on all Lav Vegas performers that utilized exotic animals in their acts for decades.
“They didn’t get the best of care,” Faso said, referencing one report where USDA reported not enough shade during heat over 100 degrees for the cats kept in cages in Arthur’s backyard.
Despite her animosity for the cats’ captivity, she describes the late magician as “a pleasant guy” while reminiscing on a drop-in visit to his property.
“I said, ‘Dirk, I don’t understand. You’ve made a living off these animals all these years, and yet, they live in the minimal, standard cement cage,’” Faso said. “I think he just looked at them as a way to make a living, and they were commodities, and he fed them, and thought, ‘hey, that’s good enough,’ as most do.”
She and Animal Protection Attorney Carney Anne Nasser point to federal law, which narrows who is allowed to take in these cats: The Big Cat Public Safety Act of 2022 and The Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Nasser says they prevent most of the 10 cats from reentering the American exotic pet trade, though the bobcat is not protected by either.
“What this means is that Dirk Arthur’s cats cannot be transferred to a private owner,” Nasser said during a virtual interview Friday afternoon. “It’s really critically important for the welfare of these animals that have been used as stage props for so long to go to accredited sanctuaries where they will finally be able to be cats.”
However, she acknowledges getting the necessary licensing to be allowed to intake the cats is somewhat simple and accessible to most people.
“Having a USDA license is a bare minimum requirement to exhibit animals, like these cats,” Nasser said, speaking of other sanctuaries that are not accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. “These people are, for all intents and purposes, just private owners who have no intention of exhibiting the animals to the public, who have no intention of becoming a reputable sanctuary, who literally have just submitted to a periodic inspection – about once a year – for purposes of circumventing some other state law.”
Owenhouse would not reveal the itineraries for each cat, though he said worked alongside Clark County Animal Protection Services and the USDA to find them new homes. Four out of the ten have already been exported, he confirmed.
Before then, he says he became the primary caretaker of the cats, spending four to six hours every day feeding them and cleaning their enclosures. It’s pushed the opening night of his new magic show across from Mandalay Bay Resort – without animals – back a week in the meantime.
“Do you think performing’s in their future ever again?” 8 News Now Reporter Ryan Matthey asked.
“You know, I don’t think so,” Owenhouse replied. “It’s a relationship (between the owner and cat) that has to be established over time, so I don’t think that they’ll perform again.”
“I think that they’ll still have a great life, in the sense of having the space they need, having the quality of food they’d need and, hopefully, the attention they need too.”
Until those locations become public, those like Faso say an uproar against Clark County Animal Protection Services may pounce if they believe the 10 cats end up in the wrong hands.
“Anybody can say they’re a sanctuary,” Faso said. “They deserve to just be free and lay down and sleep all day if they choose to do so. They’ve paid their dues.”
Clark County Animal Protection Services has declined to comment on any logistical questions 8 News Now has asked, including how they decide where the cats go.