DUNLAP, Calif. - A 24-year-old Western Washington University graduate who volunteered at Project Survival's Cat Haven in the foothills east of Fresno, Calif., was killed Wednesday when she was attacked by a 4-year-old male African lion in its enclosure.
A co-worker tried in vain to draw the lion away from the woman and into another enclosure. An arriving Fresno County sheriff's deputy, seeing the lion would not let anyone provide medical aid to the woman, shot and killed the animal.
The woman, who was described as an intern, was badly mauled and died at the scene. Her name and hometown were not released.
But the victim's father identified her as Dianna Hanson, CNN reported. She graduated from WWU in 2011 and studied biology.
Paul Hanson released a message on Facebook about the death, the cable network said.
"Dianna really loved her six-month month internship at Cat Haven," Paul Hanson wrote. "She and I drove down there from Seattle on January 1 & 2. She was so excited at working in Cat Haven and living in California. Once there, she gave me the tour and showed me all the big cats there with which she would be working."
Tanya Osegueda, a spokeswoman for Cat Haven, said the lion that was killed Wednesday was named Cous Cous. She said he was hand-raised at the Dunlap haven since he was an 8-week-old cub.
The man who opened Cat Haven in 1998 and has kept it going on a shoestring budget was visibly shaken as he talked about the attack Wednesday afternoon.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with her and her family at this critical time," Dale Anderson said.
He did not say why the woman was in the enclosure but added that an investigation will look into whether the haven's safety protocols were followed.
There were no visitors at the sanctuary when the attack happened about 12:30 p.m. Cat Haven, just off Highway 180 and just east of the community of Dunlap, is closed to the public on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the winter.
The sanctuary, like every other zoo in the state, is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Local warden Lt. Tony Spada said attacks like Wednesday's are "very rare" because of the safety measures required by the state and because regulations require minimal human-animal interaction.
The last attack by a big cat in California happened in 2007, when a Siberian tiger leaped and clawed out of its San Francisco Zoo enclosure, killing a 17-year-old boy and injuring two friends.
Organizations with exotic-animal permits from Fish and Wildlife "range from circuses to zoos to places like this, and they are all over California," Spada said.
"This place has a good history - up to this point," Spada added. "This is a situation where somebody was too close to a lion."
Spada said his agency will investigate along with the Fresno County Sheriff's Office to pin down what happened, including an autopsy of the lion.
An autopsy on the worker will be conducted Thursday, Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said.
Cat Haven is home to between 40 and 50 rare felines, according to its March 12, 2012, state permit - its most recent. Among the species are tigers, leopards, lions, jaguars and cheetahs.
The permit allows the animals to be used for exhibiting and breeding.
The wildlife center has had no violations during any of its inspections, said Janice Mackey, a state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman in Sacramento.
The most recent inspection was in 2011, she said. The permit was stamped by the state last March.
Mackey said the state wildlife agency permits and inspects every facility that holds wild animals, from big cats like Cat Haven's to local wildlife rescue agencies that rehabilitate birds, skunks and other small wildlife.
The animals can be kept only for scientific and educational purposes, she said.
Taking care of lions, tigers and other big predators is a dangerous chore. Lyn Myers, assistant curator of the mammal department at Fresno Chaffee Zoo, described what it's like.
Big cats are keenly aware of who is around them, said Myers, who wasn't commenting directly about Cat Haven. "They recognize people. They're comfortable with some and not comfortable with others."
Myers said Chaffee Zoo has strict safety protocols in place for dealing with wild animals and, like most zoos, doesn't allow keepers to interact directly with carnivores.
"Here at the zoo we do not go in with our cats," she said.
In the case of the zoo's two Malayan tigers, animal keepers are separated from the cats by a fence when any feeding or training takes place. An additional fence separates the staff area from public viewing points.
The 93-acre Cat Haven wildlife park just west of Kings Canyon National Park has been in operation since 1998, promoting conservation and preservation of wild cats in their native habitat.
Animals at Cat Haven are housed in cages on hillsides covered with granite boulders, manzanita, live oak and buckeye trees. A decomposed granite path allows visitors to travel a quarter-mile path past the cages.
Cat Haven was founded by Anderson, a former commercial airline pilot who fell in love with big cats in junior high, when a mountain lion visited his seventh-grade classroom in Santa Rosa, Calif.
"I thought it would be fun to own one," Anderson said in a 2008 story in The Fresno Bee.
But as he grew older, Anderson realized he would never be content with a single big cat in his backyard. And, as he learned about the declining numbers of big cats in the wild, he knew he could never justify owning one or more of them without doing something to preserve endangered species and their shrinking habitats.
So he created the Cat Haven and Project Survival, a nonprofit group that raises and distributes funds for research and habitat preservation. Most of the funds come from donations and public appearance fees. Cat Haven draws more than 10,000 visitors a year.
"Our goal is to save cats around the world," Anderson said in 2008. "The idea behind the zoo is to get people to interact with the cats and get interested in their conservation."
Bee staff writers Kurtis Alexander, Eddie Jimenez and Marc Benjamin contributed to this report.