DUNLAP, Calif. – A lion killed a volunteer intern at an exotic animal park in Central California after she entered its enclosure, and authorities were trying to determine what might have provoked the animal to maul her.
Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson was crying as he read a one-sentence statement about the fatal mauling at the private zoo he has operated since 1993.
The 26-year-old intern was attacked and killed when she entered the male African lion’s enclosure, Anderson said, but he refused to provide more details.
Sheriff’s deputies responding to an emergency call from Cat Haven, in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 45 miles east of Fresno, found the woman severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the lion nearby, Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Bob Miller said.
Another park worker had unsuccessfully tried luring the lion into a separate pen, so deputies shot and killed it so they could reach the wounded woman, who died at the scene, Miller 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.
The lion, a 4-year-old male named Cous Cous, had been raised at Cat Haven since it was a cub, said Tanya Osegueda, a spokeswoman for Project Survival, the non-profit that operates the animal park.
Since the 100-acre 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.
Results of the last 13 USDA inspections show no violations dating back to March 2010. The most recent inspection was Feb. 4.
Despite state regulations requiring annual inspections, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife most recently inspected the facility in January 2011, when the inspector found it in “good condition” after checking animal health and features such as enclosures.
“We have to do the best we can with the resources we’re provided,” said department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso. “Regardless of whether it was inspected, that wouldn’t have prevented this from happening.”
Department spokeswoman Janice Mackey said she was unaware if any state regulations would prohibit an employee from entering an exotic animal’s enclosure.
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.”
Officials at another big cat sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., 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.
Associated Press writers Garance Burke in San Francisco and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.