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Rogue Valley lions on their way to California

Lufuno, a 550-pound lion, dozed in the spring sunshine at the Walking With Lions sanctuary in the Phoenix, unaware he would soon be coaxed into a cage, loaded into a barred trailer and trucked to Southern California.

"Hi, Louie," said Vikki McMillan, using one of the big cat's many nicknames to get him to lift his maned head and look at her. "This is what lions do. Lions sleep, eat — and then sleep some more."

Lufuno and six lionesses were loaded into the trailer Thursday afternoon to start their journey.

Vikki McMillan and her husband, animal trainer Brian McMillan, are closing down their lion sanctuary after a Jackson County hearings officer ruled this week Oregon law does not allow them to use lions for commercial purposes on their exclusive farm use-zoned land on the outskirts of Phoenix.

The McMillans said they would not appeal the decision. Any appeal would likely be fruitless without a change to state law, Vikki McMillan said.

"I just don't have the funds, energy or resources to take it to LUBA (the state Land Use Board of Appeals.) LUBA's going to say the same thing. There's no reason to appeal unless the law changes," she said.

The couple have been flooded with emails and phone calls from people who support the sanctuary and want the pair to fight the local ruling. Vikki McMillan said people should contact their state legislators and push for more flexible rules to allow people on farm land to make a living.

Under county and state law, the lions could have stayed if the McMillans only had them as pets.

But their plans to help raise money for the animals' upkeep by having paid guests feed them milk in giant baby bottles through their enclosure fencing and watch Brian McMillan interact with the big cats ran afoul of state law. The lions also couldn't be used in advertising for the sanctuary.

Commercial ventures are allowed on farm land if they relate to the food and animals raised there, but lions are not classified as farm animals under Oregon law. A variety of other exotic species are allowed.

Vikki McMillan said she blames state law, not Jackson County's planning department or the hearings officer.

In his ruling against the couple's commercial venture, Hearings Officer Donald Rubenstein lauded the couple for their lifelong commitment to the lions, which are retired from work in movies and for television, and their professionalism. But he said the commercial use of the lions was not allowed on exclusive farm use land.

"I kind of blame myself," Vikki McMillan said. "We thought if we had the community behind us, they would be more lenient."

She added, "It's time for EFU laws to be broadened. We don't all fit in that box. It's too late for us, but maybe it could help someone else."

Dozens of people attended a March 17 hearing to show their support for the sanctuary. A Change.org petition in support of the lions has garnered more than 1,800 signatures.

The county's investigation into the sanctuary's legal status began after a Phoenix area resident filed a complaint voicing safety concerns.

Volunteers who have worked at the sanctuary gathered Thursday afternoon to help the lions begin their journey to California.

Southern Oregon University student Jaime Brown, who has an interest in animal psychology, said preparing the lions' food and cleaning up after them wasn't glamorous work, but she learned a great deal about how to care for the big cats.

Brown said she was inspired by Brian McMillan's focus on safety and his concern for the animals.

"We all felt lucky getting in on the beginning. He was always thinking of ways to make it better for them and more interesting, like he built wooden platforms so they could get higher and see around," she said. "Every day he was thinking of ways to improve. One of his ideas was for water features."

Brown said people were surprised to hear about her volunteer work.

"People don't believe you when you say you work with lions," she said. "I would say, 'Yes, I work with lions here in Phoenix, Oregon. I'm serious.' It will be sad saying goodbye, especially so soon."

The McMillans opened the sanctuary in 2014 and began more actively welcoming guests early this year. They have a pending application in with the county to use a cottage on the land as a bed and breakfast inn, and will continue that process for the benefit of the next owner. The property with the cottage, house, 42 acres and the enclosures will soon be for sale.

The McMillans had moved to the Rogue Valley from California after retiring. Vikki McMillan said she and her husband will start looking for outside jobs to help pay for the lions' upkeep.

For now, the McMillans are making the journey back to California as comfortable for the lions as possible. The animals are traveling in a custom-made double-decker trailer so they can choose whether to stay on an upper or lower level. The bed of the trailer is air cushioned so they don't feel the bumps.

A closet-sized refrigerated storage space holds meat for the trip. Together, the lions gobble 50 to 60 pounds each day.

Volunteer and neighbor Marilyn Lutter said it was fascinating to see how the lions act like giant house cats. Before she began volunteering, she used to drive slowly past the McMillans property just hoping to hear them roar.

"I've loved volunteering. It was the most wonderful experience of my life being so close to these animals," Lutter said. "They're so beautiful. It's so sad. The owners are so wonderful. I was honored to work with them.

"For such a short experience, it was an experience of a lifetime."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Lufuno, a white lion, watches as sanctuary workers prepare for the animals' departure Thursday. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Vikki McMillan, owner of the Walking With Lions sanctuary, says she had hoped the community's overwhelming support would help the lions stay in Phoenix. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell