Investigators seeks answers in lion's fatal attack

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Associated Press

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 2:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 7 at 2:33 PM

DUNLAP, California (AP) — The intern fatally mauled by a lion at a Central California exotic animal park loved lions and tigers since childhood, "was absolutely fearless" around them and hoped to work at a zoo after her six-month internship, her father said late Wednesday.

"She was at ease with those big cats," Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney, said of his daughter, Dianna Hanson, 24. "They liked her."

Hanson told The Associated Press that he dropped his daughter off Jan. 2 at Cat Haven, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of Fresno.

"It was just a dream job for her," he said, adding that she gave him a little tour and showed him the lion Cous Cous, which authorities said killed her.

Hanson said his daughter had worked with big cats before but told him she would not be allowed to go in the lion cage.

On Wednesday, deputies found the woman severely injured and still lying inside the male African lion's enclosure with the lion nearby, said 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.

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.

Thursday, Anderson returned to the zoo, driving through a gate surrounding the facility.

'I feel awful," he said.

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.

Authorities are not pursuing a criminal investigation because all leads indicate Hanson's death was the result of an accident, sheriff's Lt. Robert Miller said Thursday.

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.

Dianna Hanson's older brother, Paul Hanson, said the family knew the line of work she chose was risky, but said his sister had followed her passion to care for animals since a young age. She grew up loving the family's two cats, volunteered at a local animal shelter and hoped to ultimately get certified to pursue a career in wildlife conservation or work at a zoo.

"Anybody that encountered Dianna couldn't help being enraptured with her and with her enthusiasm," he said in an interview Thursday. "She knew the risks and we knew the risks, but that was her passion. You always wondered when she was going to work, but the risks were part of that."

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.

Paul Hanson said he thought his sister would be devastated to know that Cous Cous was killed.

Coroner David Hadden told The Fresno Bee (http://bit.ly/15A9pjB ) a preliminary inspection showed the intern had suffered bites and scratches all over her body. A cause of death has yet to be determined.

Since the 100-acre (40-hectare)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.

Officials at another big cat sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, 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 graduated from Mountlake Terrace High School and was a 2011 graduate of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, where she majored in biology.

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. It was there she learned to care for the cats, he said.

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Associated Press writers Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Garance Burke in San Francisco and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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