DUNLAP, Calif. — The investigation into a lion attack that killed a 24-year-old woman who loved big cats is focusing on a cage door that the 550-pound animal managed to escape through to reach the volunteer intern, officials say.
Authorities said Thursday they believe the 5-year-old male lion broke the neck of the woman at a Central California animal park after it got out of its feeding cage and attacked as she cleaned its bigger area.
The investigation is continuing into how the powerful beast and Dianna Hanson came tragically to be in the same place at the same time, Fresno County coroner David Hadden said.
"The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage. The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw," Hadden said, based on a briefing from investigators. "He ran at the young lady."
Hanson was talking with a co-worker on a cellphone in the moments before she was killed, the coroner said. The co-worker became concerned when the conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back. The co-worker then called authorities when she went to check on Hanson.
Hadden said the lion broke Hanson's neck, probably with a swipe of a paw, killing her instantly.
Sheriff's deputies shot Cous Cous after he couldn't be coaxed away from Hanson's body.
Hanson had been working for two months as an intern at Cat Haven, a 100-acre private zoo east of Fresno. Her father, Paul Hanson, described his daughter as a "fearless" lover of big cats and said her goal was to work with the animals at an accredited zoo. She died doing what she loves, he said.
That love was apparent on her Facebook page, which is plastered with photos of her petting tigers and other big cats. She told her father she was frustrated that Cat Haven did not allow direct contact with animals.
"She was disappointed because she said they wouldn't let her into the cages with the lion and tiger there," said Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney.
The owner of the zoo said Thursday that safety protocols were in place but he would not discuss them because they are a part of the law enforcement investigation. Dale Anderson said he's the only person allowed in the enclosure when lions are present.
"We want to assure the community that we have followed all safety protocols," Anderson said. "We have been incident-free since 1998 when we opened."
Friends of Dianna Hanson recalled her passion for cat conservation.
"She was lovely, energetic, athletic. She did everything she could to help our conservation efforts," said Kat Combes of the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, where Hanson recently had volunteered to work in the Cheetah Research Center.
The reddish-haired young woman sustained numerous bites and scratches in Wednesday's attack, and the autopsy revealed they were inflicted after she died.
"Which means the young lady ... wasn't alive when the lion was tossing the body about," said Hadden, the coroner. "We think the lion hit her with his paw and that's what fractured her neck."