As authorities investigate how a lion killed a woman inside an enclosure at a Fresno County animal park, an official with the Humane Society of the United States said it was "completely irresponsible" to allow anyone in a cage with a dangerous animal.
There were only two volunteers, both women in their 20s, at the 93-acre Project Survival Cat Haven when one of the women was attacked by the 4-year-old African lion shortly before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, officials said.
Few details about what happened before the attack were released, including why the two volunteers were left unsupervised with the lions, bobcats and other dangerous animals at the park.
“These animals are ticking time bombs waiting to explode,” said Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s completely irresponsible to allow someone to go into the enclosure with a dangerous wild animal.”
Friends of workers said volunteers fed the cats about noon. The usual method is to go into a small enclosure, leave the food, get out, then let the lions inside from a larger enclosure. According to the sanctuary’s guideline, caregivers should never be inside with the animals.
Dale Anderson, a former commercial pilot who founded the park in the 1990s, came outside the gates to read a statement to reporters who had gathered at the facility.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family at this time,” Anderson said, choking up. “We'll keep you posted as things progress around here.”
When officers arrived, the remaining volunteer had repeatedly tried to coax Cous Cous – a 4-year-old male African lion, – into another enclosure, away from the victim.
Police shot the lion before rushing to the injured woman, according to officials with the Fresno County Sheriff's Department. They did not say whether the woman was in the larger enclosure or the feeding area.
Fresno County Emergency Medical Services received a call about 12:32 p.m. to respond to Cat Haven, but the call was canceled at 12:52 because the young woman had died, officials said. Her name was not released.
A young man visiting from Italy, the boyfriend of the volunteer who found the victim, came to the park but was not allowed inside.
“I always worried about her working with lions and jaguars and bobcats” he said. “But they were always very careful. She must be in shock. I just want to go to her.”
Cat Haven is nonprofit organization that provides shelter for "large wild feline cats," helps create educational opportunities for elementary schools and funds conservation efforts, according to its most recent tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
Janice Mackey, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the department had taken custody of the lion's body and will assist the Fresno County Sheriff's Department with its investigation.
The park is licensed through the state and everything was in order, Mackey said, adding that the state agency was unaware of any previous problems.
Paquette said the tragedy underscores the need for more stringent guidelines regulating how workers interact with dangerous animals.
“The Department of Fish and Wildlife needs to take a hard look at its existing regulations,” she told The Times.
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 that the park was found to be in compliance with federal regulations.
Cous Cous had been raised by hand 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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— Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles and Diana Marcum in Fresno County
Photo: An officer guards the gate near at the entrance of Cat Haven. Credit: Gosia Wozniacka/Associated Press