FRESNO, Calif. - An employee of a big cat California sanctuary where a volunteer intern was fatally attacked called the attack an unfortunate mistake, and that nobody was to blame.
Employee Meg Pauls was performing her regular cat feedings and enclosure cleanings with intern Dianna Hanson right before the 24-year-old was attacked and killed last week.
Hanson was two months into an internship at the Cat Haven in Dunlap, a small town in Fresno County near King's Canyon National Park, when she was killed.
Each woman took a separate enclosure trail, but when Pauls got to the end of her trail, she didn't see Hanson or her golf cart where they should have been.
"I came around the corner and saw her behind a bush on the ground, and I called to her, and Cous Cous [the lion] was near her and I called to her and it looked as if she was unconscious," Pauls said. "I stopped my cart and ran up there to find out why she wasn't where she should be at that point."
When Pauls got to Cous Cous' enclosure, she found that the door was open when it should have been closed. It is still unclear what exactly caused the attack.
"She was in the main enclosure under some bushes in an opening," Pauls said. "I could see her lying down there, and I was calling to her. There was no response."
Pauls couldn't secure the lion and get to Hanson, 24, so she kept him next to her while she called 911. Less than 30 minutes after Hanson entered the cage, Cous Cous was shot by a Fresno County sheriff's deputy who'd responded to the call, authorities said.
Dale Anderson, Cat Haven's founder, said that at this point nothing on the enclosure appears to have been broken or malfunctioning. Everything was in place and operating without violation for 15 years.
The enclosure has four separate areas inside, three for the cat and one for a person. Anderson believes the lion was in the food area inside his enclosure, but the door to keep him away from Hanson had been left open.
Anderson also shot down reports that Hanson had been on her cell phone at the time of the attack. She had a walkie-talkie on her but did not use it for assistance at the time of the attack.
"How and why he [Cous Cous] did that is kind of a mystery," Anderson said. "He came out of the cage and saw somebody. Did he run in to her? Did he hit her? We don't know. When you say attacked, it sounds gruesome, but it sounds like he just knocked her down and broke her neck."
Anderson started raising Cous Cous when he was 8-weeks-old. Anytime you are dealing with a 500-pound cat, he said, there was risk of an accident.
"Dianna and I had dinner the night before and were talking about cat philosophy. Cats mean a lot to us," he said. "When you do that kind of stuff, there's an inherent risk and we accept that because we love it. Worst case scenario, there's a death involved, and that's what happened here. Again, the risk that's involved is less than what's involved satisfaction wise."
Hanson's family members knew their daughter loved Cat Haven, and they don't want anything to happen to the it as a result of their daughter's accident, Anderson said.
"We've been telling stories about Dianna," Pauls said. "She still makes us laugh. She was an incredible person. Cous Cous is not to blame. He wasn't doing anything to cause that. That's not at all what I think. He was just being a cat. He was just being a lion."
Pauls said she never questioned the way the cat enclosures are set up or her training. She has never feared the animals and feels safe at her job. Anderson said Hanson had an unfortunate accident and didn't want people to think any less of her.
"We've all ran a red light or a stop sign, but sometimes it's a fatal incident," he said. "It wasn't anything about her work. She had an accident. She left a door open.
"Nobody's to blame in this. It was a terrible accident and we lost two good friends."