DUNLAP, Calif. – Authorities said Thursday they believe a lion killed a 24-year-old volunteer at a Central California animal park after it escaped from a feeding cage and attacked her while she was cleaning its larger enclosure area.
Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Dianna Hanson died instantly when the 550-pound lion broke her neck, apparently with a swipe of a paw.
Investigators believe the 5-year-old male African lion used a paw to lift a partially open door that was meant to keep him in a cage and out of the enclosure while Hanson cleaned, Hadden said.
“The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage. The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw,” Hadden said. “He ran at the young lady.”
Hadden said Hanson was talking with a co-worker on a cellphone in the moments before she was killed. The co-worker became concerned when the conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back, the coroner said. The co-worker then called authorities when she went to check on Hanson. Sheriff’s deputies shot Cous Cous after he couldn’t be coaxed away from Hanson’s body.
Hadden said the investigation into Hanson’s death continues.
Hanson had been working for two months as an intern at Cat Haven, a 100-acre private zoo east of Fresno. Hanson was a 2011 graduate of Western Washington University, where she majored in biology.
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.
That love was apparent on her Facebook page, which 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.
The owner of the zoo said Thursday that safety protocols were in place but he would not discuss them because they are a part of the law enforcement investigation. Dale Anderson said he’s the only person allowed in the enclosure when lions are present.