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Lion attack: Volunteer tried to coax cat away from victim

March 7, 2013 |  6:24 am

A volunteer tried to coax an African lion away from the intern the animal fatally attacked Wednesday afternoon at a Fresno County cat sanctuary, officials said.

At the time of the attack, there were only two volunteers, both women in their 20s, at Project Survival's Cat Haven, a 93-acre park in Dunlap. The woman who was killed was an intern; the other is a more experienced volunteer with the nonprofit group.

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 experience volunteer repeatedly tried to coax the lion -- a 4-year-old male named Cous Cous -- into another enclosure, away from the victim, officials said. Police fatally shot the animal before rushing to the injured woman, 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. They offered few details about the incident, including why the two volunteers were left unsupervised to tend the animals.

After the incident, Dale Anderson, a former commercial pilot who founded the park more than a decade ago, came outside the facility to read a statement to a group of reporters.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family at this time," he said, choking back tears. "We'll keep you posted as things progress around here."

A young man visiting from Italy, who said he was the boyfriend of the volunteer who found the victim, was also kept outside the gates.

"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."

Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department 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 that 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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-- Diana Marcum in Dunlap, and Kate Mather and Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles

Photo: The scene at Cat Haven, a Fresno County wild animal park, after a fatal lion attack Wednesday. Credit: Diana Marcum / Los Angeles Times