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County sends Phoenix lions packing

Owners of a 41-acre lion sanctuary just outside Phoenix say they are moving their operation back to Southern California after a Jackson County hearings officer ruled they could not offer paid tours.

Longtime animal trainer Brian McMillan and his wife, Vikki, owners of the Walking With Lions sanctuary, announced their departure on their Facebook page Tuesday.

"We are moving the lions back to California this week and I will follow as soon as we sell the property," their post reads. "It is very sad as I truly love this place and the lions loved it as well. But thank you everyone for your warm thoughts and well wishes."

The McMillans have been caring for a rare white lion and six tawny lionesses retired from the television and film industry on their property at 1902 Houston Road since last year. In addition to a vacation rental, the McMillans offered public viewings of the lions for a fee under the business name Lion Encounters as a way to pay for the animals' food and care. That portion of their website at www.walkingwithlions.com has since been taken down.

County Hearings Officer Donald Rubenstein ruled this week that the McMillans could care for the lions on their property but could not use them in commercial endeavors because the land is zoned exclusive farm use.

Commercial activities can occur on exclusive farm use lands as long as they involve "the propagation, cultivation, maintenance and harvesting of aquatic bird and animal species that are under the jurisdiction of the State Fish and Wildlife Commission," Rubenstein wrote in his ruling.

Lions are not included in the list of animals under the wildlife commission.

"The McMillans' dedication to their animals is laudable and to be expected," he wrote. "... It is apparent that the care of the lions is both demanding and expensive, and the McMillans' interest in finding a way to defray the costs is understandable. Using the lions for this purpose is a natural, but it cannot be done on EFU land in the manner that they have chosen."

The McMillans could file a land-use permit application for their commercial venture, county officials said.

Owners of the sanctuary were not available for additional comment Wednesday.

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said a commercial operation could potentially be put on the property, but not until the facility goes through a rezoning process.

"They can still stay on their property," Breidenthal said. "They just can't have commercial ventures."

Breidenthal added the county's decision follows state land-use laws, which he considers restrictive.

"It's extremely frustrating that the state law is as strict as it is," he said.

More than 20 residents testified in support of the sanctuary at a hearing before Rubenstein earlier this month. An online petition supporting the facility at www.change.org garnered nearly 1,800 signatures as of Wednesday.

Rubenstein noted in his order that Vikki McMillan's statement outlining the McMillans' history with the animals and their safety record "left no question about the high degree of their skill, professionalism and competency in this field."

Sanctuary officials said they have the proper permits in California, according to exchanges with other Facebook commenters.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Brian McMillan gives Lufuno, a rate white lion, a bottle at the Walking with Lions sanctuary on the outskirts of Phoenix in early February. The sanctuary will be moving back to Southern California. Mail Tribune file photo