DUNLAP, California (CNN) — A 350-pound African lion opened the gate of a pen at a California big cat sanctuary, then moved into a larger enclosure where it killed an intern at the expansive facility, a local coroner said.
Citing investigators, Fresno County coroner Dr. David Hadden said Dianna Hanson, 24, was cleaning a main enclosure at Project Survival Cat Haven, thinking she was safe from two lions that had been inside before. But somehow, one of those animals — a 5-year-old lion named Cous Cous — escaped and attacked her.
“(Hanson) died very quickly and did not suffer,” Hadden said.
A preliminary autopsy showed that Hanson died of a “broken neck and other neck injuries,” the local coroner said. The lion inflicted other injuries “post-mortem.”
Her father, Paul Hanson, said he had been told that his daughter suffocated and wasn’t mauled, saying she had no blood, “no rips or gashes.”
He and his family are grieving, taking comfort in the fact that Dianna Hanson died doing what she loved — taking care of big cats such as Cous Cous.
“She was so happy,” he told CNN. “This was just her dream job.”
The autopsy finding on Hanson will be reviewed by a veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is conducting the necropsy on the lion.
“Fish and Wildlife has trained our officers in California to recognize a lion kill due to our abundance of mountain lions,” Hadden said, noting that the coordination between the two camps follows a protocol set up in case of a mountain lion attack. “We never in our wildest imagination thought it would be an African lion.”
Earlier Thursday, the Dunlap, California, sanctuary’s founder insisted that safety protocols were followed at the Northern California facility before Hanson’s death.
“We have been incident-free for 16 years since we opened in 1998,” he said. “We are cooperating fully with the sheriff’s department investigation and hope we can determine exactly what happened.”
He teared up and couldn’t finish his statement when he began to talk about Hanson.
“Our whole staff is … it’s just, it’s devastating,” he said.
The sanctuary has not explained why Hanson was in the lion’s cage but had said it would investigate the incident. Anderson declined Thursday to offer more details, citing the investigation being conducted by authorities.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said that when the lion attacked, another employee at the sanctuary tried to distract him away from Hanson and move him into another enclosure.
“But all attempts failed,” the office said.
A sheriff’s deputy shot and killed the animal to reach Hanson and give her medical assistance. However, it was too late, and she died at the scene.
The attacking lion, Cous Cous, was one of the late Seattle resident’s favorites, according to her father. The lion was also a celebrity of sorts, having appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ television show when he was about 3 months old.
Noted animal expert Jack Hanna said 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.”
Fatal lion maulings are rare in the United States, though not unprecedented.
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.