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Lion attack: Cat 'escaped' into larger cage where intern killed

March 8, 2013 |  6:54 am

The lion that killed a 24-year-old intern at a Fresno County wild cat park appears to have "escaped" a smaller enclosure prior to the fatal attack, the county coroner said.

Details into the death of Dianna Hanson on Wednesday are sparse, but Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said the woman's body was found in a larger enclosure that the intern had been cleaning. The lion --  a 4-year-old male named Cous Cous -- had just been fed in a smaller enclosure and somehow "escaped," Hadden said.

Dale Anderson, the founder of Project Survival's Cat Haven, declined to answer questions about how the attack happened when he toured the Dunlap facility with reporters Thursday. But a close look at the enclosure showed that the den where the lion was being fed was separated from the larger enclosure by a heavy gate that could only be lifted up.

During the attack, officials said, another volunteer tried to lure the lion away from Hanson, to no avail. Sheriff's deputies arrived and fatally shot the animal. By the time rescuers reached Hanson, she was mortally wounded.

A preliminary autopsy suggested that Hanson died quickly from a fractured neck and "some suffocation," Hadden said. The neck injury appeared to come from a swipe from the lion's paw. The body had "numerous claw marks and bite damage" elsewhere, likely inflicted after the initial swipe, Hadden said.

An investigation into the incident by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department and other agencies is ongoing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into whether there might have been any violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, although a spokesman said the last 10 federal inspections of the park found no violations and no penalties or enforcement actions issued.

Cal/OSHA investigators were at the park Wednesday and requested more information about employee procedures and training, said Peter Melton, an agency spokesman.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to examine samples taken from the lion, looking for any underlying conditions or health issues that might have contributed to the attack, said Janice Mackey, a department spokeswoman. Results were expected in the coming weeks.

Project Survival's Cat Haven houses lions, tigers, cheetahs and jaguars in enclosures on a boulder-strewn hillside about half a mile off the main road to Kings Canyon National Park. The nonprofit sanctuary, which raises money for conservation causes, gets about 10,000 visitors a year. According to the organization's website, Cat Haven raises big cats and "promotes the conservation and preservation of wild cats in their native habitat by educating visitors."

For Hanson, getting an internship at the approximately 100-acre park was the culmination of a lifelong love of big cats, friends and family members said.

As a young girl, she drew pictures of tigers and told people she wanted to be a "pet store lady" or zookeeper. After graduating from college, she moved to Kenya to work at a wildlife conservancy. Then on Jan. 1, the 24-year-old and her father drove from Washington to Dunlap, where Hanson began a six-month internship at Cat Haven.

"She was living her dream," said her older brother, Paul Hanson. "She was living her destiny as far as being able to work with those animals. That was what she wanted in life."

The park will be closed for the length of the investigation, authorities said. Officials there were shaken by the events.

"She was doing what she loved, and she did it with joy every day that she worked here," park President Wendy Dabbas said Thursday night, breaking into sobs. "I'm so sorry that this happened."

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-- Kate Mather in Los Angeles and Diana Marcum in Dunlap

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