Cat Haven agrees to add safety measures following lion mauling death

Following a lengthy legal battle, an eastern Fresno County big-cat sanctuary will be required to implement tougher safety protocols first ordered by the state in 2013 after an intern was fatally mauled by a lion.

The settlement, reached Jan. 6, requires physical barriers between humans and large cats at Cat Haven. The nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund intervened in the legal battle between the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Project Survival Cat Conservation Group, which runs the 100-acre facility.

Dianna Hanson, a 24-year-old intern, died in 2013 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.

After the accident, Cal OSHA ordered 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. But the sanctuary’s founder Dale Anderson appealed, saying it’s safer for one person to handle the animals. He also said having locks on every cage would be an inconvenience for workers to get around and that locks aren’t needed on every door.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund said Cat Haven recently agreed to add the physical barriers with “positive stops, locks of bolts,” to settle the case. Facility leaders also agreed to keep one person on standby anytime someone enters a large cat enclosure, provide safety training for workers and keep fire extinguishers near entry doors to use as a distraction during emergencies, the Animal Legal Defense Fund said.

“We commend Cal OSHA for doing a great job to resolve this unfortunate situation,” said Christopher Berry, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is based in Cotati in Sonoma County.

Berry, who signed the settlement agreement, said the nonprofit was allowed to intervene because of its expertise in workers’ safety around wild animals. He said he hopes the agreement prompts other facilities, such as zoos, marine parks and animal sanctuaries, to improve their safety measures.

Anderson said he also agreed with the settlement because a majority of the key safety protocols came from him and his staff — long before the Animal Legal Defense Fund got involved.

He also said Cal OSHA, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, and other government agencies investigated Hanson’s death and concluded that Cat Haven officials did nothing wrong and that her death was an accident.

“Safety has always been our top priority,” he said, noting that the $20,000 spent on fighting Cal OSHA could have been better used on Cat Haven’s programs for schoolchildren or taking care of the large cats.

Cat Haven opened in 1993 and is home to several rare, endangered species of wild cats including lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs.