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March 7, 2013

Calif. exotic animal park lion kills Wash. intern

DUNLAP, Calif. (AP) —  Authorities are trying to determine what provoked a lion at an exotic animal park in Central California to attack and maul to death a 24-year-old intern from Washington state.

She was attacked and killed Wednesday when she entered the male African lion’s enclosure at Cat Haven, about 45 miles east of Fresno, authorities said. Sheriff’s deputies found her severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the lion nearby, said Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Bob Miller.

Another park worker couldn’t lure the lion into another pen, so deputies shot and killed it to safely reach the wounded woman, but she died at the scene, he said.

Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney, identified the victim as his daughter, Dianna Hanson, of the north Seattle suburb of Brier, Wash. He said he dropped her off at Cat Haven on Jan. 2 for a six-month internship.

“It was just a dream job for her,” he told The Associated Press late Wednesday, adding that she hoped to parlay work at the facility into a job with a zoo later in the summer. He said she gave him a little tour and showed him the lion Cous Cous that authorities said killed her.

Hanson said his daughter had worked with big cats before and “was absolutely fearless,” though she told him she would not be allowed to go in the lion cage.

Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson cried as he read a one-sentence statement about the fatal mauling at the private zoo he has operated since 1993.

Investigators were trying to determine why the intern was inside the enclosure and what might have provoked the attack, sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Collins said. The facility is normally closed on Wednesdays, and only one other worker was there when the mauling happened, he said.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Janice Mackey said she was unaware if any state regulations would prohibit an employee from entering an exotic animal’s enclosure.

The lion, Cous Cous, a 4-year-old male, had been raised at Cat Haven since it was a cub, said Tanya Osegueda, a spokeswoman for Project Survival, the nonprofit that operates the animal park.

Since the 100-acre facility just west of Kings Canyon National Park opened two decades ago, it has housed numerous big cats, including tigers, leopards and other exotic species. It is permitted to house exotic animals by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and is regulated as a zoo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Results of the last 13 USDA inspections show no violations dating back to March 2010. The most recent inspection was Feb. 4.

Despite state regulations requiring annual inspections, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife most recently inspected the facility in January 2011, when the inspector found it in “good condition” after checking animal health and features such as enclosures.

“We have to do the best we can with the resources we’re provided,” said department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso. “Regardless of whether it was inspected, that wouldn’t have prevented this from happening.”

Cat Haven’s current “restricted species” permit, which expires in November, states the park was authorized to house 47 animals but had only 28. The animals must be used for scientific or educational purposes.

Actress Tippi Hedren, who founded the Shambala Preserve in Southern California, home to 53 seized or abandoned exotic pets, expressed dismay over the killing of the lion.

“It wasn’t the lion’s fault. It’s the human’s fault always,” Hedren said.

Nicole Paquette, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the victim of Wednesday’s attack should never have been in the enclosure with the animal.

“These are big cats that are extremely dangerous, and they placed a volunteer in the actual cage with a wild animal,” she said. “That should have never happened.”

Officials at another big cat sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., told The Associated Press last year that at least 21 people, including five children, have been killed and 246 mauled by exotic cats in the United States since 1990. Over that period, 254 cats escaped and 143 were killed.

In 2007, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo was killed by police after jumping out of its enclosure and fatally mauling a 17-year-old boy and injuring two other people.

Cat Haven has housed Bengal tigers, jaguars and leopards as well as bobcats native to the area. The facility’s website says it promotes conservation and preservation of wild cats in their native habitats and offers visitors tours and educational outreach.

Anderson said Project Survival would investigate to see if the intern and the other worker on-site followed the group’s protocols.

“We take every precaution to ensure the safety of our staff, animals and guests,” he said in a statement.

Paul Hanson said his daughter had been fascinated by big cats from an earlier age. She was a 2011 graduate of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., where she majored in biology, her father said. She graduated from Mountlake Terrace High School.

From her early childhood, “she had a thing for lions and tigers, especially tigers,” he recalled.

During college, she worked at what Hanson described as “a sizeable estate” outside Bellingham that was home to exotic animals, including three tigers and a lion. There she learned to care for the cats, he said.

“She was at ease with those big cats,” he said. “They liked her.”

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