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Neighbors support Phoenix lion sanctuary

Neighbors testified Tuesday in support of a Phoenix lion sanctuary during a hearing about whether paying guests could visit the site — which the owners say is crucial for financing the big cats' care and enormous food bills.

The lions owners, Vikki McMillan and animal trainer Brian McMillan, were summoned to testify before Jackson County Hearings Officer Donald Rubenstein after a local resident complained Feb. 9 about the lions and cited safety fears.

Rubenstein said he believed the lions — which live in enclosures with tall fencing — pose no safety risk. He also said the lions are allowed on the property as pets.

Rubenstein said the legal issue revolves around whether the couple can have commercial activities involving the lions on land zoned for exclusive farm use. He will issue a ruling about commercial use in one or two weeks.

"There's no question about the professionalism with which you run this facility," Rubenstein told the McMillans, who have decades of experience with exotic animals used for films, television and advertising. "You take great care with the safety of people and animals."

The McMillans had hoped to have paying guests stay in a bed-and-breakfast cottage on their land. The cottage overlooks the lion enclosures. They had also offered lion encounters for a fee in which people could feed milk to the cats with giant baby bottles through the fence and observe Brian McMillan interacting with the lions, which treat him like a member of their pride.

The McMillans and their lions are retired. The couple spent $400,000 on the lion facility, not counting the purchase of the 42-acre property at 1902 Houston Road just outside Phoenix city limits, Vikki McMillan said.

"We are going to care for them the rest of their lives," she said. "Unfortunately, there is no Social Security, there is no pension, there is no Medicare for animals."

The seven 350- to 550-pound lions together eat 50 to 60 pounds of meat daily and can go inside their own heated building to escape the elements. Otherwise, they live outdoors in their enclosures.

Testifying at the hearing, neighbor Kevin Yackers said he doesn't fear the lions.

"I'm more concerned with people in the neighborhood with a pitbull than I am of lions," he said.

He said paying guests at the sanctuary could help support the local economy and tourism, as well as the lions.

Neighbor Jeff Bohn said he doesn't oppose a commercial aspect to the sanctuary.

"This whole complaint stemmed from fear of the lions getting out," he said. "I was a little apprehensive at first. I saw the professionalism and the safety standards, and I have no problem with it whatsoever. It's a very well-run operation and I support them 100 percent."

Two-dozen adults and children attended the hearing to show their support for their lions. An online petition supporting the lions has garnered more than 1,700 signatures.

However, area resident Amy Dunn, who filed the complaint through a lawyer, said she is concerned about the safety of students at nearby Phoenix High School and Phoenix Elementary School.

At the hearing, the McMillans gave her a copy of their emergency safety plan for the lions, which covers situations including animal escape, earthquakes, floods, fire and civil unrest. They said they had never had an injury from a lion to anyone working with the lions, including actors and crew members on film shoots around the world.

Dunn said she would review the emergency safety plan and see if it alleviates her concerns.

Phoenix High School Principal Jani Hale previously said she had safety concerns about the lions, but was satisfied after talking to the McMillans and seeing the facility. The couple hope to have educational activities with local schools and offer free open houses once per month in the summer to teach locals about lions.

At the conclusion of the Tuesday hearing, Rubenstein — the hearings officer — said the case was certainly unusual.

"It's one of the most interesting hearings I've had the opportunity to be a part of," he said.

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

A lionness yawns in her enclosure at the Walking with Lions sanctuary. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch