A tame mountain lion's visit to Comstock Junior High in Santa Rosa 40 years ago sparked the intrigue of a boy who grew up to create the Fresno County big-cat sanctuary reeling from Wednesday's killing of a young intern by a hand-raised African lion.

Dale Anderson, who'd come to the Fulton area northwest of Santa Rosa as a toddler, couldn't talk enough about the beautiful and powerful cat he saw in his 7th-grade classroom. The mountain lion, Sam, had lived since the age of 2 months with Vietnam combat veteran and mechanic Robert Decker.

Anderson's brother, writer and Healdsburg Hotel employee Dean Anderson, remembers Dale devising a long-range plan: He would become a professional pilot and earn enough money to bring large cats into his life.

That's precisely what he did.

Dale Anderson, who attended Mark West Elementary, Comstock and then Piner High, started flight lessons at age 18 at the Sonoma County Airport. After college and many hours in the air, he went to work for a commuter airline.

He wrote in a personal history on the website of his Project Survival Cat Haven, "Every job I have ever had was a prelude to obtaining cats at a later date.

"I was an airline pilot for 10 years. It was the perfect job for me to get myself ready for the task ahead. I was able to travel around the would looking at different zoos, seeing what was good and what was bad. It also allowed me the time need to get my cat experience to obtain my permits."

About 20 years ago, Anderson, a lifelong Christian and bachelor, purchased land in the tiny town of Dunlap, 40 miles east of Fresno. He first welcomed visitors to his 100-acre Cat Haven, a nonprofit educational wildlife preserve that raises money for conservation causes, in 1998.

His younger brother has been there a number of times with his wife and three children.

"On paper, I'm on the board," Dean Anderson said. "It's a fun place to be. It's a safe place to view cats up close."

The Healdsburg resident said it's clear everyone at Cat Haven is devastated by the double tragedy Wednesday. Though the park's rules require that staffers and lions not be in a cage together, that happened and a 4-year-old lion named Cous Cous killed intern Dianna Hanson, 24.

A responding Fresno County deputy then shot and killed the lion.

As with Dale Anderson, Hanson had been fascinated by large cats and determined to work with them since she was a child. Dean Anderson said it has been a comfort to his brother for Hanson's family to focus so much attention on her love of the animals and the joy she felt through her more than two months at Cat Haven.

He said of his brother on Friday, "I think he's doing better."

Dean Anderson also recalled the unforgettable experience of his family playing with Cous Cous when the lion was just a cub. Ever since then, he said, his kids have always declared while playing the game Two Lies and a Truth, "I was attacked by an African lion."

He added, "That's probably something they won't say any more."

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here