Twenty-nine-year-old Jessica Burchiel says her childhood friend Dianna Hanson was on top of the world when she learned she got the job to volunteer at a remote cat sanctuary in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 45 miles east of Fresno, California.
“She was excited to go,” says the Washington state resident. “She knew it wasn’t going to be fancy, but she wanted to do it because that is where she saw the need. Her heart was with keeping the animals in captivity healthy and keeping the ones in the wild wild. She needed to care for the creatures no one cared about.”
“She could name every species by their name,” she adds. “She knew which were endangered and which were threatened. All this information would tumble out of her.”
On Wednesday the 24-year-old Hanson’s dream ended. She was mauled by a 5-year-old 550-pound African lion named Cous Cous as she was cleaning his cage. According to news reports, the lion, which was in a smaller container during the cleaning, used his paw to lift a partially closed door to enter the larger enclosure where Hanson was working and attacked her.
Fresno County sheriff’s deputies responding to an emergency call found the research volunteer at Kenya’s Soysambu Conservancy severely injured and lying inside the lion enclosure with Cous Cous nearby. Another more-experienced volunteer attempted to coax the big cat into another enclosure, but the animal wouldn’t budge. Police shot and killed Cous Cous before rushing to Hanson’s aid, but she died at the scene.
The Fresno County coroner ruled Thursday that Hanson died from a fractured neck from a swipe from the lion’s paw. The Western Washington University graduate also had numerous bite and scratch marks on her body.
At a press conference Thursday evening, Dale Anderson, the director of Cat Haven, said the sanctuary had been incident-free since it opened 16 years ago. “Safety protocols were in place,” he said, choking back tears. “Our whole staff ... It is devastating.”
Burchiel says she last saw Hanson in early December, less than a month before her friend began her six-month internship at Cat Haven, a 92,000-acre facility that houses 28 exotic animals, including leopards, cheetahs, and African lions.
That day, the duo spent the day at a cat sanctuary in Bellingham, Washington, where they fed lions hunks of calf meat, cleaned cages, and even carried pots of boiling water down a hill to a cage where a cat couldn’t drink water out of his bowl because it was frozen.
“We spent half and hour bringing boiling water back and forth to break the ice,” says Burchiel. “The cat had an injured paw, and he couldn’t do that. We did that for him. This huge creature couldn’t break the ice.”
As much as Hanson loved the cats, they also loved her, says Burchiel. “They were always happy to see Dianna,” she recalls. “When they saw her, they would come up to the cage and rub their face along the bars. She was really good with them. She knew exactly what their behavior meant. She showed me how much cats can read human body language.”
Her love affair with the big cats began when she was a little girl.
“As my mother can tell you, I have had the goal of working with big cats since she adopted a tiger in my name when I was 7,” she wrote in a 2011 letter to family and friends.
Later she volunteered at Snow Leopard Trust and the Akre Tiger Sanctuary in Bellingham. She also worked as a lifeguard at a pool near her home in Lynwood, California, and as a ski instructor during college at the Mount Baker ski resort.
“She was a total jock,” says Burchiel. “We did a lot of outdoor stuff. She is pretty competitive. She would challenge me to a push-up contest. We would go skiing. She would show me a crazy new trick. She would say, ‘Look at how big my six-pack is.’”
After she graduated from Western Washington University, Hanson traveled to Kenya so she could volunteer at the cheetah research center for four months.
She returned in May 2012; in early January, her father drove her from Seattle to the Cat Haven sanctuary near Fresno to begin her internship.
“Once there, she gave me the tour and showed me all the big cats there with which she would be working,” wrote Paul Hanson in a Facebook tribute. “Of course, Dianna being Dianna, her favorites were the tiger and the lion, Cous Cous, who killed her today.”
Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says Cous Cous had been raised at the wildcat park since he was 8 weeks old. When he was 6 months old, he became something of a celebrity when he appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Jennifer Michaels, the head of the Jungle Jenny Foundation, says she met Cous Cous in 2010, when she filmed a video at the sanctuary with him as one of her main stars. “He was such an adorable animal,” she said of the then-1-year-old cat. “Cous Cous was still a baby. When they are that young, they are much easier to be in the situation I was in. Cous Cous was like Dale’s baby. He really had a special love, and they had a special connection.”
Martine Colette, who runs the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest and takes care of 80 big cats, says the animals are highly unpredictable, territorial, and wary of intruders even if raised in captivity.
“A lion’s cage is their personal space,” she said. “Their enclosure is what belongs to them. It is their area to control and all creatures in life need to have some opportunity to control parts of their life. So why invade that space?”
Colette says even the most professional of zookeepers are cautious when approaching the big cats, especially one as young as Cous Cous. “A 4-year-old lion is full of testosterone,” she said. “He has just hit the grown-up stride. He is like a 19-year-old boy. They change behaviorally as they grow. That’s why only the consummate professionals that can read the animals work with them. There aren’t a lot of people in this country that do this.”
Although attacks are rare, they do happen. According to the Big Cat Rescue, 246 people were mauled by cats in the United States between 1990 and 2011. Hanson was the second person to die from a lion attack in California since 1990.
Burchiel said Hanson was an inspiration to all her friends and had a dream of going to grad school and one day returning to Africa and working as a safari guide.
“She was the kind of person that makes you want to live out your dreams fully,” says Burchiel. “That is a big dream for a little girl, ‘I want to work with lions.’ It’s like saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ She made that happen for herself.”