Morgan Cabral, 8, watches leopards while holding a toy tiger he bought at… (Diana Marcum, Los Angeles…)
DUNLAP, Calif. — A wildlife sanctuary in the Sierra foothills where an intern was killed by a lion last week reopened Sunday with her mother's blessing.
Wendy Dabbas, president of Project Survival's Cat Haven, read a grief-filled letter from Dianna Hanson's mother at a news conference before visitors entered.
"I am pleased that Cat Haven is reopening today and share in their sorrow in the loss of Cous Cous," Donna Hanson wrote. "It is my desire that they continue their mission in support of saving my daughter's beloved creatures."
Cous Cous, a rare Barbary lion, was shot by deputies trying to reach Hanson after the attack. The lion was raised at the park from the age of 8 weeks. Cat Haven founder Dale Anderson has spoken of his love for the regal animal.
But he passionately defended the deputies' shooting of the lion.
"So many people are saying they could have done this, they should have done that," he said, "when there was nothing else to do."
Before a moment of silence, Anderson spoke about his last conversation with Hanson – a spirited debate about conservation methods.
"We want to continue with our work," he said. "I hope what we're doing can honor her and Cous Cous."
Last Wednesday, three of the park's staff members were off site at an elementary school teaching children about conservation by showing them a cheetah, a large cat that has a flight — instead of fight — response.
Head keeper Megan Pauls, 28, and Hanson, 24, were alone at the park, cleaning cages. Pauls was speaking to Hanson over a walkie-talkie when they lost communication. Pauls went to the lion closure to check on the intern.
She found her lying motionless in the large enclosure. The gate between the den and the enclosure was open.
Pauls called for help and guided responders to the site, while keeping Cous Cous away from Hanson.
"I have to keep talking to him or he'll go to Dianna," Pauls told a dispatcher, according to Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who spoke at Sunday's news conference.
"I've listened to the dispatch of her 911 call, and Megan's efforts were valiant," Mims said.
Evidence suggests Cous Cous' first strike was at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the den where the lions are fed. Hanson's walkie-talkie was found there.
Hanson was dragged 30 yards away. So far, there is no evidence that the gate was faulty.
"It appears like it was not closed," Mims said. "We believe it was just an accident, an error."
But there were no witnesses. "Some answers we may not ever know," Mims added.
A coroner later reported that Hanson died instantly of a broken neck, but Mims said that because of the distance between the enclosure's entrance and where Hanson lay, deputies did not know whether or not she was alive after the initial attack.
Sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion, which weighed at least 400 pounds, then rushed to Hanson.
On Sunday, staff members in neon-bright commemorative T-shirts greeted park visitors with friendly hellos and smiles — and red, swollen eyes.
Visitor Amy Roberts, 58, carried flowers to the lion enclosure.
"As parents we want our children to live their dreams. But still you worry," she said. "Just hearing the story reminded me of what can happen in a blink."
Visitors to the park Sunday saw baby jaguars being cuddled, a leopard rolling on its back and a cheetah almost as big as a lion. The haven, near Kings Canyon National Park, raises money and awareness for conservation efforts in other parts of the world.
The lion enclosure, hung with ribbons, looked empty.
But on a hill, at the top, a volunteer staff member sat quietly beside Pele, the 10-year-old female who had lived with Cous Cous. The lion seemed to be leaning against the volunteer through the fence.
"Do lions grieve?" one of the park visitors asked tour guide Jamie Abrey.
"She cries for hours and hours," Abrey said. "From what I've seen, I'd say they do."
Rod Rimmer, a volunteer fire captain in Dunlap, said he was on the tour to support an important part of his community.
"We feel so horrible for everyone who works here," he said. "We grieve for the family, and we also feel bad about the lion."