- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

PHOENIX, Ore. (AP) - Brian McMillan opened an industrial-size chest freezer revealing hunks of meat piled inside.

“That will last a couple of days,” said his wife, Vikki.

A rare white lion and six tawny lionesses in the couple’s care at Walking with Lions sanctuary on the outskirts of Phoenix together gobble up 50 to 60 pounds of beef, horse and poultry each day.

Vikki shops for post-holiday frozen turkeys on sale at Walmart. Local ranchers and farmers donate dead cows and lame horses, old dairy cows and other animals that have to be put down. The McMillans pay for the butchering.

The cost of caring for the lions - including insurance and heating a special barn where they sleep at night - is $3,000 a month, said Brian, an animal behaviorist who has been training and caring for lions for decades.

To help finance their care, the couple has opened a cottage with two bedrooms on the property as quarters for paying guests. They hope the unique cottage inn-plus-lions setup will draw in animal lovers coming to the Rogue Valley for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, wineries and other attractions.

“We hope we can make enough to sustain the care of the animals. This is the test this year,” said Vikki, noting she and her husband hosted a few guests last fall, largely to gather feedback.

The couple previously operated a business in Los Angeles, providing lions for the filming of commercials and movies. Their lions have appeared in everything from a Rembrandt toothpaste commercial to the 2003 movie “Secondhand Lions.”

Brian said a lion could bring in $2,500 per day for filming, while the rare white lion could fetch $10,000 per day. These days, lions are being replaced by computer-generated special effects in filming. Entranced by television and electronic gadgets, people also seem less willing to go to live lion shows, he said.

“It’s a fading industry. We’re probably the last generation to do this,” Brian said.

Seeking a new lifestyle, the couple relocated to Houston Road, just outside Phoenix’s city limits, to open the 42-acre sanctuary on rural land with views of surrounding mountains. Eventually they hope to bring in other exotic animals, including giraffes and zebras.

“We’ve made a commitment to these cats. We’ll take care of them forever,” Vikki said.

For now, lions in their pens share the property with a friendly German shepherd mix and a large black Newfoundland. The Newfie - a giant among dogs - is dwarfed by the lions.

Lufuno, the white lion, tips the scales at 550 pounds. A rare recessive gene gives his fur and mane a pale but not truly white color. He is not an albino.

He lives in an enclosure by himself, although he sometimes gets to visit the six females under Brian’s supervision.

Lufuno can’t be neutered because his majestic mane would fall out with the loss of testosterone, Brian said.

The six females - weighing from 350 to 400 pounds - are spayed so they can’t reproduce. The McMillans said they rescued them as cubs, mainly from roadside attractions that overbred lions for profit.

All the lions still have their claws and teeth, Brian said.

When he approaches Lufuno’s enclosure, the nearly chest-high lion paces back and forth, rubbing his cheeks against the fence like a house cat.

Brian said lions do have some of the same behaviors as domestic cats.

“But these guys are much more self-assured and confident. They’re high on the food chain. There’s very little in the wild that can mess with them,” he said.

Like pets, the lions enjoy leaning against people. But because they weigh hundreds of pounds, Vikki has to brace herself to avoid being toppled, she said.

As Brian gets closer to Lufuno, the lion “sounds off,” emitting low sounds in greeting.

“He looks at Brian as part of the pride,” Vikki said.

The lions are also hopeful he will bring them bottles of milk, Brian said.

The adult animals continue to drink milk, in addition to eating meat.

“First they have the milk - and then they have the cow,” Vikki said.

The lionesses are divided, with two less intelligent females affectionately nicknamed “The Donkeys” in one enclosure and four smarter females called “The Wild Bunch” in another. The less intelligent females would be picked on if kept with the other females. All lion prides have a hierarchy and pecking order, Vikki noted.

Normally asleep for most of the day, “The Wild Bunch” females pace the fence line of their enclosure when strangers appear. While one has a staring contest with a visitor outside the fence and then lunges when the man turns his head for a second, another lion creeps forward on her belly like a cat planning to ambush a bird.

Guests who stay at the cottage can have a “lion encounter,” which includes feeding the lions through the fencing with a bottle. They are supervised at all times by the McMillans. Sticking a hand through the towering fences to try and pet a lion is strictly forbidden.

Children have to be at least 13 years old to go near the enclosures. When they aren’t accompanied by the McMillans, guests can look at the lion enclosures from decks on the back of the cottage.

Encounters also can be reserved by visitors who aren’t staying at the cottages. Prices for an hour-long encounter range from $70 to $100 a person, depending on the number of people in a group.

Brian McMillan does go inside the enclosures. He has the lions demonstrate their agility by jumping from platform to platform.

He said training lions is similar to being a pilot. In both professions, complacency can lead to disaster. He always guards against developing a cavalier attitude.

“You should walk in every day knowing something could happen,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a bad lion. There’s no such thing as a bad tiger. Trainers make mistakes just like pilots make mistakes.”

The couple said they are committed to safety and building good community relations. They hope to partner with schools to develop educational programs.

Phoenix High School is visible from the sanctuary, while Phoenix Elementary School is less than a half-mile away.

Last fall, Phoenix High School Principal Jani Hale and the school’s office manager made a point of visiting the sanctuary.

“The thought of it was pretty scary,” Hale said. “When I went out there to see what they were doing, it was impressive, and now I’m not afraid.”

Hale said she and the McMillans hope to team up on educational activities. The sanctuary could help students learn about veterinary science and agricultural operations.

“I just appreciate their desire to build relationships with schools and the community,” Hale said.

The McMillans said they hope to educate the public about the plight of lions, both in the wild and in captivity. Giving people an up-close look at the lions will help them appreciate the animals as a species and individually, they believe.

“Their personalities range from lazy and stubborn to comedic and fun-loving. Some are more serious. Some are more friendly,” Brian said. “They’re like people.”

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Online:

www.walkingwithlions.com

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Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/

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