Emotional zoo keeper, 27, tells how she discovered body of 24-year-old intern after she was killed by a lion

  • Dianna Hanson was inside a 350-pound African lion's cage when it attacked on Wednesday
  • Lion was shot dead after police were unable to lure animal away from its victim
  • Cat Haven founder says Hanson by mistake left a door open separating her from the lion
  • Killer lion featured on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show when it was a cub

The headkeeper at a Central California big cat sanctuary where an intern was killed by a lion last week spoke out for the first time about the tragedy, saying that the 24-year-old woman’s death was an accident.

Cat Haven employee Meg Pauls, 27, was making her regular rounds feeding the animals and cleaning enclosures with Dianna Hanson just moments before the young volunteer was killed.

Speaking to ABC News this week, Pauls explained that she and Hanson took separate trails. When the headkeeper got to the end of her pathway, however, she became alarmed because Hanson did not make it to their usual meeting place.

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Horrific moment: Cat Haven headkeeper Meg Pauls, left, recounted how she and intern Dianna Hanson, right, were making their rounds feeding the animals just moments before she found the woman's body under a bush

When Pauls rounded a corner, she spotted Hanson on the ground behind a bush inside the animal enclosure with Cous Cous the five-year-old African lion standing near her. The park worker called the intern's name, but got no response.

Pauls approached the lion's enclosure, where she found the door ajar when it should have been closed.

The headkeeper explained that she could not safely get Cous Cous back into the gated area and reach Hanson, so she kept the 350-pound cat next to her while she called for help.

Dale Anderson, the founder of the Dunlap-based animal park, said that the enclosure has four separate areas inside, three of which are for the animal and one for a person.

According to Anderson, what likely happened was that Hanson by mistake had left open the door separating her from Cous Cous in the feeding area.

'It wasn't anything about her work. She had an accident. She left a door open,' Anderson said.

He added that it does not appear like any part of the enclosure was broken or faulty at the time of the incident.

The USDA inspects the animal park several times each year and the agency has never cited Cat Haven for a violation.

Anderson went on to say that working with large cats comes with an inherent risk of an accident, which Hanson was aware of.

Good record: The USDA inspects the animal park several times each year and the agency has never found a violation

'Worst case scenario, there's a death involved, and that's what happened here,' the Cate Haven founder said. 'Again, the risk that's involved is less than what's involved satisfaction wise.'

Pauls insisted that Cous Cous was not to blame for Hanson's death.

'He was just being a cat. He was just being a lion,' she said. 

The founder of the big cat sanctuary also wanted to clear up some misconceptions that have been reported about Hanson’s death, chief among them that the woman had been mauled.

An autopsy revealed that the 24-year-old intern died from a broken neck, which suggests that Cous Cous simply pushed her to the ground rather than lunged at her with the intent to kill.

He also pointed out to KSEE24 that Hanson was not talking on her cell phone during the attack, and she was not trying to impress her boyfriend by opening the gate in the enclosure: Pauls was the only other person in the park at the time.

Last week, authorities said they believe the lion that killed Hanson had escaped from a feeding cage and attacked her while she was cleaning its larger enclosure area.

Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Hanson died instantly when the 350-pound lion broke her neck, apparently with a swipe of a paw.

Investigators believe the 5-year-old male African lion used a paw to lift a partially open door that was meant to keep it in a cage and out of the enclosure while Hanson cleaned, Hadden said.

Killed: Dianna Hanson, a 24-year-old intern whose dream job was working with big cats, was tragically killed after entering a lion's cage at a California wildlife sanctuary in April

'The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage. The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw,' Hadden said. 'He ran at the young lady.'

Sheriff's deputies who arrived on the scene after getting a 911 call from Pauls shot Cous Cous after he couldn't be coaxed away from Hanson's body.

Predator: Cous Cous is the 4-year-old, 350-pound lion who killed Hanson and then was shot

Hanson had been working for two months as an intern at Cat Haven, a 100-acre exotic zoo east of Fresno. Her father, Paul Hanson, described his daughter as a 'fearless' lover of big cats and said her goal was to work with the animals at an accredited zoo. She died doing what she loves, he said.

That love was apparent on her Facebook page, which is plastered with photos of her petting tigers and other big cats. She told her father she was frustrated that Cat Haven did not allow direct contact with animals.

'She was disappointed because she said they wouldn't let her into the cages with the lion and tiger there,' said Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney.

The owner of the zoo said Thursday that safety protocols were in place but he would not discuss them because they are a part of the law enforcement investigation. Dale Anderson said he's the only person allowed in the enclosure when lions are present.

'We want to assure the community that we have followed all safety protocols,' Anderson said. 'We have been incident-free since 1998 when we opened.'

Friends of Dianna Hanson recalled her passion for cat conservation.

'She was lovely, energetic, athletic. She did everything she could to help our conservation efforts,' said Kat Combes of the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, where Hanson recently had volunteered to work in the Cheetah Research Center.

The autopsy revealed that the numerous bites and scratches the reddish-haired young woman sustained were inflicted after she died.

Back in the day: The lion that killed the intern appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show when it was a cub

Danger: During the appearance, Ellen talked about how lions like Cous Cous should not be kept as pets

'Which means the young lady ... wasn't alive when the lion was tossing the body about,' said Hadden, the coroner. 'We think the lion hit her with his paw and that's what fractured her neck.'

When the attack occurred, Anderson said he and two other Cat Haven workers had left to take a cheetah to exhibit at a school. Hanson and another worker were left behind.

Whether Hanson was performing a function that placed her in danger is being investigated by Cal-OSHA, which also is trying to determine if employees were properly instructed about potential danger, as required.

'There should have been procedures that very clearly stated what the employees were required to do in order to not get killed,' said agency spokesman Peter Melton, who added that documentation about the warning had not yet been provided by Cat Haven.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, is also looking to understand why the lion turned on the intern.

'We're looking at whether the animal was acting in a manner leading up to that situation that maybe the staff should have been aware of,' spokesman Dave Sacks said. 'Was it being fed properly? Was it under undue stress?'

USDA inspectors conduct multiple unannounced inspections of Cat Haven every year and never had found a violation, Sacks said. Federal regulations pertain only to animal treatment and do not 'cover every single instance of what a facility can and cannot do,' he said.

A necropsy on the lion is being performed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Tulare.

Care giver: Ms Hanson started her six-month internship at the cat sanctuary in January, seen here with one of the tigers

Pleasurable work: In a message on Facebook Ms Hanson's father said that his daughter really loved the work she did for the sanctuary, she's seen posing before two cheetahs with a smile

Cat Haven breeds and keeps lions, tigers, jaguars, lynx and other exotic cats and takes them out for public appearances. A recent television report showed a reporter petting one of the animals.

It does not hold voluntary accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, said Senior Vice President Steve Feldman, or by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Both set standards for members.

'There are very clear standards for care,' said Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, part of the federation. 'Standards should not allow close contact with humans.'

By all accounts, Hanson loved contact with cats. In one photo on her Facebook page, a leopard is lying next to her leg.

Late last year, she traveled to a preserve where she had volunteered in Bellingham, Wash., and posted a photo of herself standing in a tiger enclosure holding a stick as she was preparing to scratch the animal's back.

'I was bending over to scratch her back with my hand,' she wrote under the photo. 'You only touch them with your hands ... one doesn't poke a tiger with a stick.'

On the same post, she expressed excitement about going to Cat Haven to start an internship. 'So be prepared for more kitty pictures with new cats!' she wrote.

Hanson's family was taking some solace in that she died doing what she loved.

'She was living her dream and pursuing her life's work to the fullest,' her brother, Paul R. Hanson, told the AP. 'Upon completion of college she set off to pursue her life's work of bringing awareness of the plight of these magnificent animals through education and outreach.'

In a letter posted to family and friends, the woman who had graduated in 2011 from Western Washington University with a bachelor's degree in ecology, evolution and biology talked about falling in love with exotic cats. After meeting a Washington couple with four tigers, she was hooked.

'For the last two and a half years I have been learning how to care for these animals and come next February, my father has given me a plane ticket' to Kenya, she enthusiastically wrote, adding later: '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 7. I'm getting there.'

Mauling: Ms Hanson was volunteering at California's Cat Haven sanctuary when she was fatally mauled after entering the cage of this 350-pound African lion

Work experience: Ms Hanson's Facebook page shows previous work listed as an intern with the Snow Leopard Trust in Seattle, Washington as well as serving as a research volunteer at the Soysambu Conservancy in Nakura

Mr Hanson said his daughter had loved lions and tigers since she was a little girl.

While studying at WWU he says she cared for a few animals owned by a family living near the campus, King5 reports.

Investigators were trying to determine why Ms Hanson was inside the enclosure and what might have provoked the attack, Fresno County sheriff's Sgt. Greg Collins said.

Fresno County Emergency Medical Services say they received a call to the sanctuary around 12.32pm on Wednesday but by 12.52 the call was cancelled because the victim had already died, the Fresno Bee reports.

Father's worst fear: Paul Hanson spoke to ABC about how he had a 'horrible premonition' that his daughter Dianna would get into trouble by working with big cats

The Fresno County Sheriff's Office explained their choice to shoot the cat in a news release following the attack, stating: 'Another employee had made several attempts to distract the lion away from the victim and into another enclosure prior to the deputy's arrival, but all attempts failed.'

The lion had been hand raised at the sanctuary since it was eight-months old, said Tanya Osegueda, a spokeswoman for Project Survival, the nonprofit that operates Cat Haven.

Cat Haven is a private 100-acre non-profit animal sanctuary just west of Kings Canyon National Park.

Tragedy: Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson was crying as he addressed the attack that took both the intern and the lion's lives at his park, pictured

Questions: An investigation is now underway into why the intern entered the cage of the four-year-old lion named Couscous photographed here in 2012

The site is about 45 miles east of Fresno in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Since the property opened in 1993, it has housed numerous big cats, including tigers, leopards and other exotic species.

'This facility has a very good history,' Lt. Tony Spada of state Fish & Wildlife told the Fresno Bee. 'In this case, someone just got too close.'

The sanctuary boasts more intimate relationships with their cats, with videos showing their handlers interacting one-on-one with the animals inside their cages.

'We started the Cat Haven with the idea that giving people a better experience with cats, and hopefully they become interested when they see them and hear them and hopefully they'll want to take an active role in conservation for cats in the wild,' said Cat Haven's founder Dale Anderson speaking to Fox News in February.

The sanctuary 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.

Killed: The four-year-old lion named Couscous, seen here with a female named Pely, was shot dead by emergency personnel responding to the scene

Human raised: The sanctuary says they raised the lion, pictured, by hand when it arrived at their facility at eight-months old

Results of the last 13 inspections by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service show no violations dating back to March 2010. The most recent inspection was Feb. 4, USDA records show.

Despite state regulations that require annual inspections, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife most recently inspected the facility in January 2011.

'We have to do the best we can with the resources we're provided,' said department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso.

The inspector's written comments were 'facility in good condition.' The inspector checked gates, enclosures, water supplies, drainage, cleanliness, ventilation and the general health of the animals.

Department spokeswoman Janice Mackey said she was unaware if any state regulations would prohibit an employee from entering an exotic animal's enclosure.

She said each species is identified on the permit, and the animals must be used for scientific or educational purposes only.

'We don't allow them to be used as pets,' Mackey said.

Loved: Mr Anderson is seen scratching one of his sanctuary's lions back in February for an interview that he hoped would inspire others to get to know and help the giant cats

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. I've got 40 years behind me. I know what I'm talking about,' Hedren said.

A movie was made at Shambala several years ago and several people were injured. 'Two were nearly killed,' she said.

'Lions are one of the four most dangerous animals in the world. There is nothing you can do. When they get a thought pattern, there is nothing short of a bullet to the brain that will stop them,' Hedren said.

Nicole Paquette, vice president of the Human Society of the United States, voiced similar concerns.

'She should have never been in the enclosure with him,' Paquette said of the victim. 'These are big cats that are extremely dangerous, and they placed a volunteer in the actual cage with a wild animal. That should have never happened.'

Sanctuary: The Cat Haven sanctuary, a non-profit opened in 1993, is on 100-acres of private land, pictured, just west of Kings Canyon National Park

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 since 1990. Over that period, 254 cats escaped and 143 were killed.

Tatiana, 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 in 2007.

Cat Haven has housed Bengal tigers, Siberian lynx, caracals, jaguars and leopards of various types as well as bobcats native to the area. Anderson described the private zoo several years ago as one of a handful of facilities across the U.S. that has all of the big cat species in one place.

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 who was 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 written statement.

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