Show walks a fine lion

Aims to amaze and educate

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With a show title like Walking With Lions, Brian McMillan expects a few misunderstandings.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/06/2009 (4809 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With a show title like Walking With Lions, Brian McMillan expects a few misunderstandings.

Like on Sunday, when a Red River Ex patron approached McMillan and asked when he could walk with the big cats.

McMillan smiled and explained in his rugged British accent that he — the lion trainer — would be the one doing the actual walking.

He cracked a joke to lessen the man’s obvious disappointment.

“It would be a short walk,” he said. “We call it a two step.”

That’s because though McMillan’s six lionesses and rare white lion may lick his face and drink milk from a bottle — guaranteed to induce collective cooing from the audience — they’re still lions.

McMillan began his career with animals in 1965 when he joined a circus in England. He began training horses and worked his way through elephants before settling on big cats.

He then moved to Hollywood and began working behind the scenes of movies as an animal trainer, but “my passion’s always been live shows,” he confessed.

That passion gave birth to Walking With Lions, McMillan’s show featuring Lufuno — one of only 40 white lions in existence — and the six lionesses: Elsa, Rafiki, Zulu, Arusha, Mombassa and Kalahari.

The show’s Winnipeg première is also the furthest the cats have ever been from their California home.

Each of the large cats — many of whom came to McMillan through rescue groups — has its own personality, the trainer said.

“They’re very much like people. They have moods — upswings, downswings. Sometimes they don’t want to be touched,” McMillan explained.

For example, during a Sunday performance, one of the lionesses stubbornly refused to follow her felines co-stars in jumping from one platform to another.

McMillan gently coaxed the lioness back to the platform — using a technique he calls affectionate training, which utilizes positive reinforcement — where she succeeded in performing the jump.

“They’re like kids,” McMillan said, explaining his insistence that the lioness complete the jump. “The more you let them get away with, the more they cheat.”

Though the show is meant to entertain, McMillan said Walking With Lions is designed to pique people’s interest in the mighty cats and awaken them to the issues facing lions today — loss of habitat, which comes hand-in-hand with loss of prey.

“In general, our main goal is to educate the audience about the plight of the lions in the wild,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t pleased by the delighted faces in the audience.

Nine-year-old Shaylynne Karol said she’d seen lions in the zoo before, but McMillan’s show was more fun.

“Here they were doing tricks, and at the zoo they were just lying down,” she explained.

The Red River Ex runs until June 21.

arielle.godbout@freepress.mb.ca

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