DUNLAP, Calif. (AP) - Authorities said Thursday they believe a lion killed a 24-year-old
volunteer at a Central California animal park after it escaped from a
feeding cage and attacked her while she was cleaning its larger enclosure area.
Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Dianna Hanson died instantly when the 550-pound lion broke her neck, apparently with a swipe of a paw.
Investigators believe the
5-year-old male African lion used a paw to lift a partially open door
that was meant to keep him in a cage and out of the enclosure while Hanson cleaned, Hadden said.
"The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large
enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage. The gate of the cage was
partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up
with his paw," Hadden said. "He ran at the young lady."
Hadden said Hanson was talking with a co-worker on a cellphone in the
moments before she was killed. The co-worker became concerned when the
conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back, the coroner
said. The co-worker then called authorities when she went to check on
Hanson. Sheriff's deputies shot Cous Cous after he couldn't be coaxed
away from Hanson's body.
Hadden said the investigation into Hanson's death continues.
Hanson had been working for two months as an intern at Cat Haven, a 100-acre private zoo east of Fresno. Her father, Paul Hanson,
described his daughter as a "fearless" lover of big cats and said her
goal was to work with the animals at an accredited zoo. She died doing
what she loves, he said.
That love was apparent on her Facebook page, which is plastered with
photos of her petting tigers and other big cats. She told her father she
was frustrated that Cat Haven did not allow direct contact with
"She was disappointed because she said they wouldn't let her into the
cages with the lion and tiger there," said Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area
The owner of the zoo said
Thursday that safety protocols were in place but he would not discuss
them because they are a part of the law enforcement investigation. Dale Anderson said he's the only person allowed in the enclosure when lions are present.
"We want to assure the community that we have followed all safety
protocols," Anderson said. "We have been incident-free since 1998 when
Friends of Dianna Hanson recalled her passion for cat conservation.
"She was lovely, energetic, athletic. She did everything she could to
help our conservation efforts," said Kat Combes of the Soysambu
Conservancy in Kenya, where Hanson recently had volunteered to work in
the Cheetah Research Center.
The reddish-haired young woman sustained numerous bites and scratches
in Wednesday's attack, and the autopsy revealed they were inflicted
after she died.
"Which means the young lady ... wasn't alive when the lion was
tossing the body about," said Hadden, the coroner. "We think the lion
hit her with his paw and that's what fractured her neck."
When the attack occurred, Anderson said he and two other Cat Haven
workers had left to take a cheetah to exhibit at a school. Hanson and
another worker were left behind.
Whether Hanson was performing a function that placed her in danger is
being investigated by Cal-OSHA, which also is trying to determine if
employees were properly instructed about potential danger, as required.
"There should have been procedures that very clearly stated what the
employees were required to do in order to not get killed," said agency
spokesman Peter Melton, who added that documentation about the warning
had not yet been provided by Cat Haven.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the
federal Animal Welfare Act, is also looking to understand why the lion
turned on the intern.
"We're looking at whether the animal was acting in a manner leading
up to that situation that maybe the staff should have been aware of,"
spokesman Dave Sacks said. "Was it being fed properly? Was it under
USDA inspectors conduct multiple unannounced inspections of Cat Haven
every year and never had found a violation, Sacks said. Federal
regulations pertain only to animal treatment and do not "cover every
single instance of what a facility can and cannot do," he said.
A necropsy on the lion is being performed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Tulare.
Cat Haven breeds and keeps lions, tigers, jaguars, lynx and other
exotic cats and takes them out for public appearances. A recent
television report showed a reporter petting one of the animals.
It does not hold voluntary accreditation from the Association of Zoos
& Aquariums, said Senior Vice President Steve Feldman, or by the
Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Both set standards for members.
"There are very clear standards for care," said Adam Roberts of Born
Free USA, part of the federation. "Standards should not allow close
contact with humans."
By all accounts, Hanson loved contact with cats. In one photo on her Facebook page, a leopard is lying next to her leg.
Late last year, she traveled to a preserve where she had volunteered
in Bellingham, Wash., and posted a photo of herself standing in a tiger
enclosure holding a stick as she was preparing to scratch the animal's
"I was bending over to scratch her back with my hand," she wrote
under the photo. "You only touch them with your hands ... one doesn't
poke a tiger with a stick."
On the same post, she expressed excitement about going to Cat Haven
to start an internship. "So be prepared for more kitty pictures with new
cats!" she wrote.
Hanson's family was taking some solace in that she died doing what she loved.
"She was living her dream and pursuing her life's work to the fullest," her brother, Paul R. Hanson,
told the AP. "Upon completion of college she set off to pursue her
life's work of bringing awareness of the plight of these magnificent
animals through education and outreach."
In a letter posted to family and friends, the woman who had graduated
in 2011 from Western Washington University with a bachelor's degree in
ecology, evolution and biology talked about falling in love with exotic
cats. After meeting a Washington couple with four tigers, she was
"For the last two and a half years I have been learning how to care
for these animals and come next February, my father has given me a plane
ticket" to Kenya, she enthusiastically wrote, adding later: "As my
mother can tell you, I have had the goals of working with big cats since
she adopted a tiger in my name when I was 7. I'm getting there."
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