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Victim of Fresno-area lion attack loved her job with big cats

Dianna Hanson was 'living her dream' as an intern at a feline haven in Fresno County. She was killed by a lion in her care.

March 07, 2013|By Kate Mather and Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • As a child, Dianna Hanson drew pictures of tigers and told people she wanted to be a zookeeper.
As a child, Dianna Hanson drew pictures of tigers and told people she wanted… (Paul Hanson )

DUNLAP, Calif. — For Dianna Hanson, getting an internship at a remote feline conservancy in the hills east of Fresno was the culmination of a lifelong love of big cats.

As a young girl, she drew pictures of tigers and told people she wanted to be a "pet store lady" or zookeeper. After graduating from college, she moved to Kenya to work at a wildlife conservancy. Then on Jan. 1, the 24-year-old and her father drove from Washington to this small Fresno County town where Hanson began a six-month internship at Project Survival's Cat Haven.

"She was living her dream," said her older brother, Paul Hanson. "She was living her destiny as far as being able to work with those animals. That was what she wanted in life."

Hanson was killed at the park Wednesday, when a 4-year-old male lion named Cous Cous attacked her. During the attack, another volunteer tried to lure the lion away from Hanson, to no avail. Sheriff's deputies arrived and fatally shot the animal. By the time rescuers reached Hanson, she was mortally wounded.

A preliminary autopsy suggested that Hanson died quickly from a fractured neck and "some suffocation," said Fresno County Coroner David Hadden. The neck injury appeared to come from a swipe from the lion's paw. The body had "numerous claw marks and bite damage" elsewhere, likely inflicted after the initial swipe, Hadden said.

Authorities on Thursday continued investigating the circumstances of the attack. Hanson and the other volunteer were alone on the roughly 100-acre park when the attack occurred about 12:30 p.m., officials said. Friends of the workers said the routine was to feed the cats about noon, typically by putting food in a small enclosure, getting out and then letting the animals inside from a larger enclosure.

Details of the incident were sparse, but Hadden said Hanson's body was found in the larger enclosure and it was his understanding that the lion had just been fed in the smaller enclosure when it "escaped."

A necropsy on the lion was scheduled to be performed Thursday, said Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for California Fish and Wildlife. Officials were to collect samples from the lion, looking for any underlying conditions or health issues that might have contributed to the attack. Results are expected in a couple of weeks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into whether there might have been any violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. Cal/OSHA investigators were at the park Wednesday and requested more information about employee procedures and training, said Peter Melton, an agency spokesman.

The last 10 federal inspections of the park found no violations, and a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said no penalties or enforcement actions had ever been issued.

At a brief news conference Thursday outside the park's gates, sanctuary founder Dale Anderson said Cat Haven had been "incident free" since 1998.

"Our whole staff...," he said, fighting back tears. "It's devastating."

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. According to the organization's website, Cat Haven raises big cats and "promotes the conservation and preservation of wild cats in their native habitat by educating visitors."

Cous Cous, who was raised at the park since he was 8 weeks old, was one of Hanson's favorite animals, her father wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday, the Frenso Bee reported.

Hanson had shown her father the lion when he helped her move to Dunlap in January.

Family members said Hanson was more fascinated than frightened by the felines and wanted to dedicate her life to preventing their extinction.

"She always had this desire to work with the big cats," Paul Hanson said. "As she got older, her desire evolved into sharing the plight of a lot of these animals and work she could do to ensure their survival."

Hanson shared her enthusiasm about her work on her Facebook page, which was filled with pictures of cats.

Several shots showed her posing with bobcats as well as tigers and other big cats. In a photo posted last month, she's posing with two cheetahs on a table.

"You gotta love what you're doing!" a friend wrote.

"Can't complain," she replied.

Mather reported from Los Angeles and Marcum from Dunlap.

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