Death of lion lover spurs state and federal scrutiny
Friday, March 8, 2013
DUNLAP, Calif. (AP) — A 24-year-old intern who was described by her father as a “fearless” lover of big cats ventured into a lion enclosure at a privately owned zoo and was mauled to death, prompting investigations by several government agencies that want to know how the accident happened.
Dianna Hanson, whose Facebook page is plastered with photos of her petting tigers and other big cats, was frustrated that the exotic cat zoo in California where she had worked since January did not allow direct contact with animals, her father told The Associated Press.
“She was disappointed because she said they wouldn’t let her into the cages with the lion and tiger there,” Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney, said about Cat Haven, the site of the deadly mauling on Wednesday.
Friends of Dianna Hanson recalled her passion for cat conservation.
“She was lovely. Energetic, athletic. She did everything she could to help our conservation efforts,” said Kat Combes of the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, where Hanson recently had volunteered to work in the Cheetah Research Center.
For reasons still being investigated, Dianna Hanson entered the enclosure of a male African lion named Cous Cous on a day that Cat Haven, 45 miles east of Fresno, was closed to the public.
The 4-year-old lion, which had lived at the park since it was a cub, attacked Hanson and was later shot by Fresno County sheriff’s deputies who were trying to reach her body.
Autopsy results revealed the reddish-haired young woman died quickly of a broken neck, possibly from a paw swipe from the 550-pound lion, and the numerous bites and scratches she sustained were inflicted after she died.
“Which means the young lady ... wasn’t alive when the lion was tossing the body about,” said Fresno County Coroner David Hadden. “We think the lion hit her with his paw and that’s what fractured her neck.”
On Wednesday, deputies found the mortally injured Hanson lying inside the enclosure, with Cous Cous nearby, said Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Bob Miller.
Another park worker had failed to lure the lion into another pen, so deputies shot and killed it to reach the wounded woman, but she died at the scene, he said.
Whether Hanson ignored orders or was performing a function that placed her in danger is being investigated by Cal-OSHA, which also is trying to determine if employees were properly instructed about potential danger, as required.
“There should have been procedures that very clearly stated what the employees were required to do in order to not get killed,” said agency spokesman Peter Melton, who added that documentation about the warning had not yet been provided by Cat Haven.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, is also looking to understand why the lion turned on the intern.
“We’re looking at whether the animal was acting in a manner leading up to that situation that maybe the staff should have been aware of,” spokesman Dave Sacks said. “Was it being fed properly? Was it under undue stress?”
USDA inspectors conduct multiple unannounced inspections of Cat Haven every year and never had found a violation, Sacks said. Federal regulations pertain only to animal treatment, and do not “cover every single instance of what a facility can and cannot do,” he said.
A necropsy on the lion is being performed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Tulare.
Dale Anderson, founder of the 100-acre facility in the Sierra Nevada foothills on the road to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, said he also is investigating whether the facility’s procedures were followed.
“We want to assure the community that we have followed all safety protocols,” Anderson said. “We have been incident-free since 1998 when we opened.”
He declined to comment on the facility’s specific safety protocols, saying the details are part of the investigation by law enforcement.
Cat Haven breeds and keeps lions, tigers, jaguars, lynx and other exotic cats and takes them out for public appearances. It does not hold voluntary accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums or by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which set standards for members.
“There are very clear standards for care,” said Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, part of the federation. “Standards should not allow close contact with humans. Frankly, facilities that don’t comply with the federation’s standards are ripe for potential abuse and these kinds of problems.”
By all accounts, Hanson loved contact with cats. Her Facebook page holds dozens of photos of her petting many exotics.
In one photo, a leopard is lying next to her leg.
Late last year, she traveled to a preserve where she had volunteered in Bellingham, Wash., and posted a photo of herself standing in a tiger enclosure holding a stick as she was preparing to scratch the animal’s back.
“I was bending over to scratch her back with my hand,” she wrote under the photo.
“You only touch them with your hands ... one doesn’t poke a tiger with a stick.”
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