'Cous Cous' the lion innocent in death of handler, family says

The family of Dianna Hanson, who was killed by a 550-pound male lion named 'Cous Cous' on Wednesday, calls the incident a 'tragic accident' that was no one's fault, including the lion. 

Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee/AP
Dale Anderson, founder of Project Survival Cat Haven near Dunlap, Calif, walks quietly with Pele, a female lion, at the same fenced habitat area where a day earlier Cat Haven sanctuary worker Dianna Hanson, 24, died from an attack by Cous Cous, a male lion twice the size of Pele.

A 550-pound African lion named 'Cous Cous' pried open the gate to a large cage near Fresno, Calif., this week, pouncing up to and swatting an intern zoo worker, Dianna Hanson, so hard she died.

On Friday, the reaction from the woman's family was not entirely unexpected. Instead of blaming the four-year-old animal, they called the incident a "tragic accident" that began with the animal's wits and ended with what was likely an example of "rough play" that instantly broke Ms. Hanson's neck. Law enforcement officers shot the lion as it paced near Ms. Hanson's body.

"It sounds like it was an accident. Maybe the latch had not been completely closed. ... You know, house cats are smart, they can open doors," Paul Hanson, the victim's father, told the Associated Press. "It wasn't a vicious attack."

According to a coroner's report, Hanson sustained other injuries after death, but the victim's family insisted that the lack of lacerations and bite marks on the neck – the lion's standard kill spot – suggests that it was not a willful attack by the animal.

While lions are often put down after zoo attacks, the usual reaction in the wake of zoo attacks runs closer to what's happening in Fresno: sympathy and understanding for the cat, and the natural risks of working with wild animals in enclosed settings.

The entertainer Roy Horn epitomized this attitude when inviting Montecore, the lion that nearly killed him in a 2003 attack, back to perform again with him for a special show in 2009.

Last September, Bronx Zoo authorities spared the life of Bashuta, an 11-year-old tiger, after the animal attacked a man who had jumped into the cat's enclosure. "The tiger was acting as a normal tiger does … and did nothing wrong in this episode," Bronx Zoo Jim Breheny said at the time.

The actress Tippi Hedren, founder of the Shambala Preserve in southern California, told Fox News that Cous Cous the lion should not have been killed

"It wasn't the lion's fault," Ms. Hedren said. "It's the human's fault always … Lions are one of the four most dangerous animals in the world. There is nothing you can do. When they get a thought pattern, there is nothing short of a bullet to the brain that will stop them."

But while Hanson's family has cleared the zoo facility, Cat Haven, of blame, the organization is staying largely mum about the details of how the incident happened, citing a law enforcement investigation.

Workplace safety agencies in California and the US Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoos and private animal preserves, are also investigating the death, particularly why a lion with no prior incidents acted the way it did.

Opened in 1998 near Kings Canyon National Park, Cat Haven houses 29 large cats in a 100-acre facility. It regularly receives passing marks from government inspectors and has not had an incident since it opened.

It was closed Wednesday when the attack occurred. Investigators are eyeing whether Hanson was working on something that put her in danger, as well as the particular cage door that separates a smaller holding cage with the main cage.

"The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage," Fresno County Coroner David Hadden told the media. "The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw."

A fund has been established in Hanson's name, and her family is urging people to support various wildlife organizations as well as Cat Haven.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.