DUNLAP, Calif. — Investigators said Thursday they think a lion at a privately owned Central California exotic zoo escaped from a feeding cage and killed a volunteer who was cleaning its larger enclosure.
Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Dianna Hanson, a 24-year-old intern described by her father as a "fearless" lover of big cats, died instantly when the 5-year-old lion broke her neck Wednesday, apparently with a swipe of a paw.
Hanson had been working two months at Cat Haven, a 100-acre zoo east of Fresno. The large enclosure where Hanson was killed includes a smaller cage where animals can be confined for feeding or cage cleaning.
Investigators think the 550-pound male lion, named Cous Cous, managed to open a gate, Hadden said, but the investigation continues.
"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 to lift it up with his paw," said Hadden. "He ran at the young lady."
The lion, who lived at Cat Haven since it was a cub, was shot by sheriff's deputies when he couldn't be coaxed away from Hanson's body.
Hanson's father said his daughter's goal was to work with big cats at an accredited zoo and that she died doing what she loves. Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney, described her as fearless about the big cats.
She had 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," Paul Hanson said.
The owner of the zoo said Thursday that safety protocols were in place.
"We want to assure the community that we have followed all safety protocols," Dale Anderson said. "We have been incident-free since 1998 when we opened."