Skip to main content

Worker mauled to death at California sanctuary by her favorite lion

By Lateef Mungin and Cristy Lenz, CNN
March 7, 2013 -- Updated 2332 GMT (0732 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservationist says she had been in the cage with the lion before
  • The victim of the attack was a 24-year-old intern
  • A deputy shot and killed the adult male African lion
  • The lion was once on the Ellen DeGeneres show

(CNN) -- It was clear that Dianna Hanson was thrilled to be at the Cat Haven sanctuary. Her Facebook page boasted more pictures of lions and tigers than it did of her friends.

Hanson had been at the 100-acre wooded Northern California facility since January -- working as an intern, bonding with the big cats it's home to.

On a Facebook photo of her petting a tiger cub, a friend commented, "You have met your calling."

"My calling," Hanson jokingly responded, "drools on my pants."

On Wednesday, the 24-year-old Seattle woman was killed when she was mauled by a 5-year-old, 350-pound African lion inside a cage.

Corwin reacts to deadly lion attack
Hanna: Sanctuary lions are wild animals
Lion attacks, kills sanctuary intern
Exclusive video of lion that attacked

Hanson's grieving father said the lion, Cous Cous, was one of her favorites.

The sanctuary did not release details of why Hanson was in the lion's cage, but said it would investigate whether safety protocols were followed.

The Fresno County Sheriff's Office said that when the lion attacked, another employee at the sanctuary tried to distract him away from Hanson into another enclosure. "But all attempts failed," it said.

A sheriff's deputy shot and killed the lion to reach Hanson and give her medical assistance. It was too late.

"The victim died at the scene."

Facility 'well run, professional'

Hanson's father said he and his daughter took a two-day road trip from Seattle to Dunlap, California, at the beginning of the year when Hanson's internship began. She was supposed to be there for six months.

"Once there, she gave me the tour and showed me all the big cats there with which she would be working," the father, Paul, said in a statement Wednesday night.

"Of course, Dianna being Dianna, her favorites were the tiger and the lion ... who killed her today," he added.

Cous Cous once appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' television show when he was about three months old. The comedian fed him from a bottle as a handler stood by.

Late Wednesday, some who knew the lion, who had been raised in captivity, were shocked.

Jenny Michaels, the head of The Jungle Jenny Foundation, said she had been in the lion's cage before, accompanied by a park worker .

Watch video of the lion from 2012

"I didn't see any type of aggressive behavior," Michaels told CNN's Piers Morgan.

She said the workers at the park were top-notch.

"It was really well run, very professional," she said. "I don't know the circumstances (of the attack) but I can tell you that in my interaction over at Project Survival they have been professional and ... they have run their protocol strictly."

Noted animal expert Jack Hanna said that even if Hanson knew the lion, a big cat can be unpredictable in the way it reacts to what it sees or hears.

"They are wild animals, end of story," he said. "No matter what anyone says, they are wild animals."

Hanna said it would be unusual for someone to enter an adult lion's cage without another person accompanying them or close by.

From the archives: White tiger kills zookeeper as tourists watch

Big cat attacks

Twenty people, including five children, have been killed by big cats in the United States in the past 21 years, according to figures kept by Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit cat sanctuary in Tampa, Florida.

Another 246 people were mauled in the United States during that same time period, 1990 to 2011, the group said. The group's website did not have figures for 2012.

In California alone, 14 people were mauled, but Hanson's is just the second death.

In 2007, an escaped Siberian tiger attacked and killed one person and injured two others in a cafe at the San Francisco Zoo.

Leopard killed after mauling six in India

Love of lions started early

Hanson's love for big cats began when she was very young.

"As my mother can tell you, I have had the goals of working with big cats since she adopted a tiger in my name when I was seven," Hanson wrote in a 2011 letter.

While working at a Washington ski resort while in college, she met a little boy who told her his grandparents owned four tigers. She befriended the family.

When she graduated from Western Washington University, her father presented her with a plane ticket to fly to Nukuru, Kenya, with the family and see the work being done with the animals there.

"I will be volunteering at the Cheetah research center, which is run by Project Survival," Hanson wrote in a college graduation letter. "They (also) have a facility in California known as Cathaven. The owners of Cathaven have invited me to see this facility, so I'm hoping to get down there this summer."

In the letter, Hanson thanked her family and friends for helping her get close to her dreams.

"This was her dream come true," her father told CNN affiliate KCPQ. "Working with big cats all day long, nothing but big cats."

Get the latest news from CNN.com

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A captured fighter tells CNN's Ivan Watson: "They gave us drugs... that made you go to battle."
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
A terminally ill woman who plans to take her own life checks off the last item.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 2340 GMT (0740 HKT)
In a plot straight out of Hollywood, federal agents gain access to a suspected Triad boss' Vegas hotel room by pretending to fix the Internet connection.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 0434 GMT (1234 HKT)
Was it only black and Latino men who harassed a woman in NYC? The filmmaker has found himself in a race controversy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
The history of human rights often overlooks the struggles of gay people. This must change.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
Armed with Kalashnikovs and chanting for the dead comrades, women are among ISIS' most feared enemies. They are fighting for their families -- and now they are getting U.S. help.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Lere Mgayiya put his best foot forward and set up a shoe-shine firm after his career plans fell flat.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
One Chinese drone manufacturer wants to take away the warmongering stigma of "drones."
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
Sketcher Luis Simoes is traveling the world -- slowly. And he's packed his sketchbook.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
European states help North Korea's brutal treatment of its people by allowing luxury goods like cars and cognacs to evade sanctions, two experts say.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Chinese leaders want less odd architecture built in the country.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT