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Lion mauling death: How dangerous are private zoos? (+video)

Animal behavior experts called the mauling death of a young woman in California an unfortunately predictable tragedy. Conservationists say too many exotic animals are kept privately in the US.

By Staff writer / March 7, 2013

Cat Haven founder and executive director Dale Anderson talks to reporters about the fatal mauling of an intern at the exotic animal park in Dunlap, Calif. The victim was later identified as Dianna Hanson, 24, of Lynnwood, Wash.

Mark Crosse/The Fresno Bee/AP

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Los Angeles

The mauling death of a 24-year-old intern at a private zoo in central California Wednesday has renewed calls for better regulation of exotic animals in the US.

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A five-year-old male African lion named CousCous – who had once appeared as a cub on the TV show “Ellen” – attacked and killed the volunteer, Dianna Hanson, who was alone in the cage with the big cat.

In announcing Ms. Hanson’s death, park owner Dale Anderson gave no details as to why she had entered the enclosure by herself. But animal behavior experts say this was an unfortunately predictable tragedy, and conservationists are calling this further evidence of the need for better oversight.

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“There is a growing epidemic of people who want to keep these exotic animals as pets, or who put them in roadside zoos and pseudo sanctuaries that profit off their captivity,” says Tracy Coppola, program director for the Washington-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). She points out that 18 of the 22 deaths in the United States involving wild animals in captivity since 1990 occurred in private zoos and unregulated menageries.

“This is a huge and growing problem in this country,” she says, “more than any other nation. People here are fascinated by these animals and want to own and breed and profit from them.”

However, points out Ms. Coppola, while the lack of national regulation of the exotic animal trade continues to lead to such tragedies, the impact is growing on what are increasingly endangered species.

She notes that some 5,000 tigers are kept in captivity in the state of Texas alone, while roughly 3,000 remain in the wild globally.

Cat Haven, the central California wildlife park where Wednesday’s death occurred, is regulated by both the USDA and the State Fish and Wildlife Service. The facility had passed a USDA inspection as recently as last month. However Cat Haven falls short of qualifying under international standards as a true sanctuary, which neither breed nor exhibit animals, says Monica Engebretson of Born Free USA.

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