Nobody gets to touch the big cats at Safari West without years of experience and supervision, cheetah handler and safety coordinator Leslie Thalman says.
"Each cat is handled differently; it's a matter of time and training," she said. "It's species by species, sometimes even individual by individual."
The Sonoma County wildlife park doesn't have any of the potentially man-eating lions like the one that killed a 24-year-old intern at a park in Fresno County this week, Thalman said Friday, but that doesn't mean her staff doesn't take extreme care with the exotic animals they do have, including cheetahs, foxes and servals, an African cat that can reach 35 pounds.
"Even something relatively small can do a lot of damage if you don't handle it right," she said.
Authorities still haven't said why a lion named Cous Cous killed intern Dianna Hanson at the Fresno County park Wednesday as she was cleaning the animal's pen. The coroner says she died of a broken neck.
Sheriff's deputies shot and killed the lion when handlers were unable to lure it away from Hanson's body as rescuers tried to get to her, though later investigation by the coroner suggests it was already too late to save her at that point.
"It's very sad. I am acquainted with the owners, and they are very conscientious people," Thalman said. "It's just heartbreaking; it's your worst nightmare."
Safari West has never had serious animal-related injuries to staff or guests, Thalman said, though every animal handler learns to expect minor scrapes and injuries.
"The protocols we have in place are pretty strict," she said, but an incident like the one in Fresno "certainly makes everyone more sensitive."
Guests are never allowed to come in contact with most of Safari West's animals, particularly the big cats, she said. Staff is allowed only limited contact; the bigger the animal, the smaller the number of people who are allowed into the cage.
New employees start by handling the smallest predators, the foxes, and only under direct supervision. If they demonstrate care and a strict adherence to the rules, they are allowed to progress to larger animals.
Only Thalman and a handful of veterans are allowed to interact directly with the largest cats, the five cheetahs. In the wild, cheetahs are shy and prone to run away when confronted by larger animals or humans, but they are strong enough to inflict damage if startled into lashing out.
"We never forget or get complacent that something that is hand-raised can be startled by something outside the exhibit," she said.
Three of the cheetahs, the females, all have been hand-raised, and Thalman has known them since they were cubs. Those three tend to be affectionate and occasionally like to be petted. The two males, however, were acquired at an older age and are not as acclimated to humans. Nobody ever attempts to pet them, she said.
Handling potentially dangerous animals requires an intimate knowledge of not just the characteristics of the species but the personalities, moods, and quirks of each creature, she said. Just as parents can read the moods of their children, she said, handlers can sense the moods of the animals and approach them — or avoid them — accordingly.
"We let them call the shots," she said.