USDA, Cal-OSHA join investigation into deadly lion attack at exotic animal park
GOSIA WOZNIACKA and TRACIE CONE, AP
5:56 PM, Mar 7, 2013
DUNLAP, Calif. - The US Department of Agriculture and Cal-OSHA on Thursday joined other state and federal agencies investigating the fatal mauling of a volunteer intern at an exotic animal park in California.
State investigators who protect workplace safety said they are trying to determine whether Cat Haven near Fresno has the required written procedures that employees follow to stay safe.
The USDA enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act and hopes to learn whether the 4-year-old lion that killed 24-year-old Dianna Hanson showed any behavior prior to the attack that might have indicated potential danger.
Fresno County sheriff's investigators and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife want to know why Hanson was in the enclosure with the animal.
The Seattle-area intern had 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.
"She was at ease with those big cats," Paul Hanson, an attorney, said of his daughter. "They liked her."
Hanson told The Associated Press that he dropped his daughter off on Jan. 2 at Cat Haven, about 45 miles 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 into the lion cage.
On Wednesday, deputies found the woman severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the 4-year-old male African 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.
Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson cried as he read a one-sentence statement Wednesday about the fatal mauling at the private zoo he has operated since 1993.
Anderson returned to the zoo in Thursday.
"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, Miller 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.
Dianna Hanson's older brother, Paul Hanson, said the family knew the line of work she chose was risky, but added she 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. "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 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.
The facility 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.
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."
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, Wash., where she majored in biology.
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.
Associated Press writers Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Garance Burke in San Francisco and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.