Strict rules at Safari West on handling big cats

  • Safari West safety coordinator Leslie Thalman, right, pets Thula, while hoofstock supervisor Nikki Smith pets Gijima, after feeding the two cheetahs their evening meal at Safari West, near Santa Rosa, on Friday, March 8, 2013. Thalman, who is also a guide manager and on the carnivore team, explained that trained staff enter the cheetah habitat in pairs as part of their safety protocol. The hand-raised cheetahs are pet in order to keep them accustomed to being handled by humans.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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