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Lion attack that killed intern 'devastating,' zoo founder says

March 7, 2013 |  2:41 pm

 

The founder of a Fresno County wild cat park where a lion fatally mauled an intern Wednesday described the attack as "devastating."

At a news conference Thursday, founder Dale Anderson said his organization is fully cooperating with the investigation and that the sanctuary had been "incident free" since 1998.

“Our whole staff,” Anderson said, fighting back tears, “it’s devastating.”

Family members said the intern, 24-year-old Dianna Hanson, had long loved big cats.

Paul R. Hanson, 29, said his sister had always been interested in animals, particularly big cats. After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in biology in 2011, the Seattle-area native began working toward a certification that would have allowed her to work at a zoo.

That goal took her to the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya after graduation and then, in January, to Project Survival's Cat Haven in Dunlap for a six-month internship.

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

Dianna Hanson's Facebook is filled with photos of wild cats, including one from Feb. 7 in which she posed with two cheetahs.

"You gotta love what you're doing!" a friend wrote.

"Can't complain," she replied.

"She always had this desire to work with the big cats," Paul Hanson said. "As she got older, her desire evolved into sharing the plight of a lot of these animals and work she could do to ensure their survival through the process of education and outreach."

Their family was "extremely" proud of all she had accomplished, her brother said.

Now, the Hansons are trying to process what happened Wednesday, when one of Dianna Hanson's beloved cats — a 4-year-old male lion named Cous Cous — attacked and killed her at Cat Haven.

Officials have released little information about the attack but said Hanson and another volunteer were the only two at the 93-acre nonprofit sanctuary.

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department reported receiving the emergency call shortly before 12:30 p.m. Friends of the workers said the routine is to feed the cats about noon. The usual method is to go into a small enclosure, leave the food, get out, then let the animals inside from a larger enclosure. According to the sanctuary's guidelines, caregivers should never be inside with the big cats.

The more experienced volunteer repeatedly tried to coax Cous Cous into another enclosure, away from the victim, officials said. Police fatally shot the animal before rushing to Hanson, according to sheriff's department officials, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Authorities would not say whether the lion was in the larger enclosure or the feeding area. An autopsy for Hanson was scheduled for Thursday; a necropsy is also planned for the lion.

Cat Haven, which houses lions, tigers, cheetahs and jaguars, draws about 10,000 visitors a year. It was closed Wednesday as part of its "winter hours."

Dozens of people have flocked to the park's Facebook page to express condolences for both Hanson and the lion. A message posted Wednesday night said the park was closed until further notice.

"We want to thank everyone for their outpouring of love and support during this very sad and difficult time," read another message posted Thursday morning.

Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency had taken custody of the lion's body and would assist the Sheriff's Department with its investigation.

The park is licensed by the state, Mackey said, adding that the agency was unaware of any previous problems.

The facility is also regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has conducted at least five routine inspections of the site since October 2011, according to records reviewed by The Times. The inspection reports show the park was found to be in compliance with federal regulations.

Cous Cous had been at the park since he was 8 weeks old, said Project Survival spokeswoman Tanya Osegueda.

"It's so tragic all the way around," she said.

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— Kate Mather in Los Angeles and Diana Marcum in Dunlap

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