Big cat sanctuary owner followed dream sparked in Santa Rosa

  • Dale Anderson, founder of Project Survival Cat Haven near Dunlap, Calif. speaks to the media Thursday, March 7 2013 a day after Cat Haven sanctuary worker Dianna Hanson, 24, died from a lion attack. (AP Photo/Eric Paul Zamora, The Fresno Bee)

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."

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