California cat sanctuary to reopen following deadly lion attack

San Francisco Sat Mar 9, 2013 5:29pm EST

1 of 3. Cous Cous the lion is shown inside its enclosure at the Cat Haven Sanctuary in Dunlap, California, in this undated photo released to Reuters March 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Aimee Zundell/Handout

San Francisco (Reuters) - The California wildlife sanctuary where an African lion attacked and killed a 24-year-old worker this week is set to reopen to the public on Sunday.

The Cat Haven preserve, which has been shut since the attack on Wednesday, will resume regular operations, including offering guided tours to visitors, Cat Haven officials said.

"It is important that we attend to (the animals') health and well-being, and we believe returning to a state of normal operations is a part of that process," Cat Haven founder Dale Anderson said in a statement.

Dianna Hanson, a 24-year-old intern who had been working at the park since January, was attacked while cleaning an empty cat enclosure.

A 4-year-old male lion named Cous Cous escaped from his feeding pen, apparently by pushing open an improperly secured gate, and pounced on Hanson, fracturing her neck and killing her instantly, according to Fresno County Coroner David Hadden.

Sheriff's deputies later shot and killed the lion, which weighed at least 400 pounds (181 kgs), after they failed to coax him away from Hanson's body.

Cous Cous and his mate, Pely, were Barbary lions, a species from the region between Morocco and Egypt that is extinct in the wild. He had been handled by humans since he was weeks old.

A necropsy, the animal form of an autopsy, was performed on Thursday to determine whether health issues, such as a neurological disorder or a disease like rabies, could have contributed to the attack.

An initial examination found the lion healthy, but full test results are expected to take weeks, said Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Cat Haven, a 100-acre (16-hectare) sanctuary in Dunlap, California, run by the group Project Survival and located about 40 miles east of Fresno, is still home to 29 large cats.

State and local agencies are investigating whether Cat Haven violated any safety procedures that could have safeguarded against such an attack.

Anderson said the sanctuary is cooperating with the investigation and cautioned that, until law enforcement releases its findings, "anything reported about the accident is purely speculative."

Hanson earned a biology degree in 2011 from Western Washington University and last year she spent six months in Kenya working on a wild feline reserve.

Her family says they see the incident as a tragic accident.

"We know that first and foremost, Dianna would want the work that Cat Haven is doing to continue," her mother, Donna Hanson, said in a statement.

The Hanson family has set up a fund in Dianna's honor that will benefit her favorite charitable organizations, including Cat Haven.

(Editing by Edith Honan and Vicki Allen)