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Intern attacked and killed by lion at cat sanctuary

The victim, 26, was alone with another volunteer at Project Survival's Cat Haven in Fresno County at the time of the attack, officials say. Authorities kill the lion while trying to rescue the woman.

March 06, 2013|By Diana Marcum and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times
  • The animal involved in the attack, a 4-year-old male African lion named Cous Cous, is shown last year at the sanctuary.
The animal involved in the attack, a 4-year-old male African lion named… (KFSN-TV / Associated Press )

DUNLAP, Calif. — A 26-year-old woman was attacked and killed by a lion at a Fresno County cat sanctuary Wednesday, and deputies shot the animal as they rushed to rescue the victim.

Project Survival's Cat Haven houses lions, tigers, cheetahs and jaguars in enclosures on a boulder-strewn hillside about half a mile off the main road to Kings Canyon National Park. The nonprofit sanctuary, which raises money for conservation causes, gets about 10,000 visitors a year but is closed midweek. 

At the time of the attack, there were only two volunteers, both women in their 20s, at the 93-acre park. The woman who was killed was an intern; the other is a more experienced volunteer at the park.

The Fresno County Sheriff's Department received the emergency call shortly before 12:30 p.m. Friends of workers said the routine is to feed the cats about noon. The usual method is to go into a small enclosure, leave the food, get out, then let the animals inside from a larger enclosure. According to the sanctuary's guidelines, caregivers should never be inside with the big cats.

Allowing anyone inside a cage with a lion, especially a volunteer intern, would be "completely irresponsible," said Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States.

"These animals are ticking time bombs waiting to explode," Paquette told The Times. "It's completely irresponsible to allow someone to go into the enclosure."

The other volunteer repeatedly tried to coax the animal — a 4-year-old male African lion named Cous Cous — into another enclosure, away from the victim, officials said. Police fatally shot the lion before rushing to the injured woman, according to Sheriff's Department officials, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. Her name has not been released.

Authorities would not say whether the lion was in the larger enclosure or the feeding area.

Indeed, authorities offered few details about the incident, including why the two volunteers were left unsupervised to tend the animals. Yellow tape went up across the park's entrance gates, which are decorated with bright blue big cats. A swarm of news media congregated outside.

Dale Anderson, a former commercial pilot who founded the park more than a decade ago, came outside to read a statement.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family at this time," he said, choking back tears. "We'll keep you posted as things progress around here."

A young man visiting from Italy, who said he was the boyfriend of the volunteer who found the victim, was also kept outside the gates.

"I always worried about her working with lions and jaguars and bobcats," he said. "But they were always very careful. She must be in shock. I just want to go to her."

Janice Mackey, a state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the department had taken custody of the lion's body and would assist the Sheriff's Department with its investigation.

The park is licensed by the state and everything is in order, Mackey said, adding the agency was unaware of any previous problems.

Paquette said the tragedy underscores the need for more stringent regulations on how workers interact with wild animals. "The Department of Fish and Wildlife needs to take a hard look at its existing regulations," she said.

The facility is also regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has conducted at least five routine inspections of the site since October 2011, according to records reviewed by The Times. The inspection reports show that the park was found to be in compliance with federal regulations.

Cous Cous had been at the park since he was 8 weeks old, said Project Survival spokeswoman Tanya Osegueda.

"It's so tragic all the way around," she said.

diana.marcum@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

Marcum reported from Dunlap, Mather from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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