Cat Haven owner vows to fight new state requirements for worker safety

The Fresno BeeJuly 16, 2014 

Dale Anderson, founder and executive director of Project Survival, walks alongside the fence line with Titan, a male lion, in this 2013 photo.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a lion escaped its cage before killing a Cat Haven intern.

Dale Anderson, the founder of Cat Haven, is refusing to implement new safety protocols ordered by the state at his big-cat sanctuary located in eastern Fresno County.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is telling the Dunlap animal sanctuary to include locks on every cage door, have a two-person system when working with animals and arm keepers with pepper spray in case of an emergency.

Last year, 24-year-old intern Dianna Hanson died at Cat Haven after being attacked by a 5-year-old lion named Cous Cous in its enclosure. A Fresno County sheriff's deputy shot and killed the lion.

Cat Haven opened in 1993 and is operated by the Project Survival Cat Conservation Group. The sanctuary is home to several rare, endangered species of wild cats including lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs.

Cal OSHA is implementing the new rules to make conditions at Cat Haven safer for employees. However, Anderson is appealing the orders.

"The new policy they're trying to do would actually make our conditions less safe," Anderson said.

Anderson said it's safer for one person to handle the animals.

"A two-person system would cause complacency because you think someone else is doing the other job," Anderson said. "You're supposed to have one person do the whole job and control the doors."

Cal OSHA is ordering that keepers work in pairs when moving large cats from one area to another and whenever a keeper enters a feeding area. The keepers must check all doors and locks and locate the animals before entering.

But Anderson said having locks on every cage would be an inconvenience for workers to get around and that locks aren't needed on every door.

Anderson has 23 years of experience working with large cats, and said that the people making decisions on his sanctuary don't have the expertise and experience to do so.

"It's an absurd system," he said. "Don't step into the stuff that you don't know anything about."

Anderson refuses to put the new safety protocols into play and if his appeal is denied, he plans to take the issue to court.

"The rules will make it more dangerous," he said. "I will not put my people or animals at further risk."

Peter Melton, spokesman for Cal OSHA, said Cat Haven may face substantial fines if an agreement is not met during the appeals process.

Cat Haven was not fined or penalized for the accident that occurred a year ago.

"California Fish and Wildlife have OK'd us and the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) didn't have any issues," Anderson said.

Cal OSHA is trying to reach out to Cat Haven's attorney to negotiate and discuss a settlement, Melton said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6140, or @SharonBMartin on Twitter.

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