By GOSIA WOZNIACKA and TRACIE CONE
(FRESNO, Calif., AP) – Family members of a 24-year-old intern killed by a lion at a California animal park said Friday they believe the facility followed safety protocols and the death was a tragic accident.
Investigators believe the 5-year-old male lion lifted the door of a partially closed feeding cage with its paw and killed Dianna Hanson as she cleaned a bigger enclosure area, Fresno County coroner David Hadden has said.
Family members say they don’t believe it was a mauling, but rather a lion’s rough play that turned tragic.
Dianna Hanson’s brother, Paul R. Hanson, also told The Associated Press that his family was relieved the young woman did not suffer after the lion swiped or lunged at her.
Hanson died immediately from a broken neck, according to a Fresno County coroner’s autopsy report.
Other injuries — including scratches and claw marks — were sustained after her death, the report states.
The investigation was focusing on the cage door that the 550-pound animal managed to escape through to reach the volunteer intern, officials say.
“The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage,” Hadden said. “The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw.”
Hadden said the lion then ran at Hanson.
Hanson was talking with a co-worker on a cellphone in the moments before she was killed, the coroner said. The co-worker became concerned when the conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back. The co-worker then called authorities when she went to check on Hanson.
Sheriff’s deputies shot Cous Cous after the animal couldn’t be coaxed away from Hanson’s body.
Hanson had been working for two months as an intern at Cat Haven, a 100-acre private zoo east of Fresno.
Her father, Paul Hanson, described his daughter as a “fearless” lover of big cats and said her goal was to work with the animals at an accredited zoo. She died doing what she loves, he said.
Hanson’s Facebook page is plastered with photos of her petting tigers and other big cats. She told her father she was frustrated that Cat Haven did not allow direct contact with animals.
“She was disappointed because she said they wouldn’t let her into the cages with the lion and tiger there,” said Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney.
Dale Anderson, the owner of the zoo, said safety protocols were in place but he would not discuss them because they are a part of the law enforcement investigation.
Anderson said he’s the only person allowed in the enclosure when lions are present.
“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.”
When the attack occurred, Anderson said he and two other Cat Haven workers had left to take a cheetah to exhibit at a school. Hanson and another worker were left behind.
Whether Hanson 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.
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.
Cat Haven breeds and keeps lions, tigers, jaguars, lynx and other exotic cats and takes them out for public appearances.