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Originally published Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:29 AM

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Living her passion, a young woman dies

Dianna Hanson, 24, of Brier, was killed by a lion that had escaped its cage Wednesday at an exotic animal park in California where she was a volunteer intern.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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While her friends were obsessed with dolls or ponies, for as long as anyone can remember Dianna Hanson talked incessantly of her love of lions and tigers.

“She’s always had a fascination with big cats,” Paul Hanson, her father, recalled Thursday morning. “She never played with dolls. She was a tomboy and played with boy stuff.”

“I thought she would change her mind, but it was her dream, her goal, right from the start.”

Dianna Hanson, of Brier, Snohomish County, paid regular visits to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to view the lions and tigers. She volunteered to help stray and feral cats, her father said. While in college at Western Washington University, she volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary outside Bellingham.

But Wednesday, while his daughter was interning at an animal park in Central California, Paul Hanson’s long-held fear came true. Dianna, 24, was attacked and killed by a lion that had escaped his cage.

The Fresno County Coroner’s Office says the 550-pound lion used its paw to lift a partially open door and escape a smaller cage before attacking and killing Hanson, who was cleaning a larger enclosure at Cat Haven, about 45 miles east of Fresno.

She was on the phone with a co-worker in the moments before she was killed, and the co-worker became concerned when the conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back, Coroner David Hadden said Thursday.

Investigators told Hadden the 5-year-old African lion had been fed when he charged Hanson, breaking her neck and killing her with an apparent swipe of a paw.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, also hopes to learn whether the lion showed any behavior before the attack that might have indicated potential danger.

Authorities are not pursuing a criminal investigation because the death appears to have been the result of an accident, Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Miller said Thursday.

“I had an awful feeling that a lion or tiger would turn on her,” Paul Hanson, a Lynnwood-area attorney, said Thursday.

Deputies shoot lion

Sheriff’s deputies responding to an emergency call from the park found Dianna Hanson severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the lion nearby, Miller said.

Another park worker had been unsuccessful in trying to lure the lion into a separate pen, so deputies shot and killed the animal to reach the woman, who died at the scene, he said.

Hadden said an autopsy revealed Hanson died instantly of a broken neck at the start of the animal’s attack, so she didn’t suffer from the numerous bites and clawing that followed, according to The Fresno Bee.

The facility is normally closed Wednesdays, and only one other worker was there when the mauling happened, Hadden said.

The lion, named Cous Cous, had been raised at Cat Haven since it was a cub, said Tanya Osegueda, a spokeswoman for Project Survival, the nonprofit group that operates the animal park.

Paul Hanson said his daughter had told him no one, except Cat Haven Director Dale Anderson, was allowed inside the lion’s enclosure.

Hanson said he had visited Cat Haven when he dropped his daughter off at the animal park in early January to start her volunteer internship.

“She had showed me Cous Cous, the lion. She was so happy, so joyful, being there,” he said.

Paul Ryan Hanson, Dianna Hanson’s older brother, said his sister “had a fire for life, pursuing her dreams and achieving her goals.”

“Her passion was that people were made aware of the plight of these animals,” he said, speaking from his father’s office. “She was following her dream.”

WWU degree in biology

Hanson was a graduate of Mountlake Terrace High School and WWU, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2011.

The university issued a statement on Thursday: “Members of the Western Washington University community are deeply saddened by and share in the loss of Western graduate Dianna Hanson. We offer our sympathy and condolences to her family and friends.”

Hanson had worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the city of Shoreline Pool since 2005.

City spokesman Eric Bratton said she planned to return to her job in the summer after her internship at Cat Haven.

“Our sympathy and thoughts go out to Dianna’s family during this devastating time,” said Shoreline Pool Manager James McCrackin. “This is a major blow to the Shoreline Pool staff and the pool community. She will be remembered for her dedication and caring heart. We are grateful to have known her and to have been a part of her shining life.”

She also spent years working at animal shelters including the Snow Leopard Trust, PAWS, Akre Tiger Sanctuary in Bellingham and Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, her LinkedIn account says.

She got to know the operators of the private Akre Tiger Sanctuary after a young boy she was teaching to ski at Mount Baker told her about his family’s tigers, Paul Hanson said.

While working at the Bellingham sanctuary, she was able to get into the lion and tiger cages to care for the animals, her father said.

The owner of Cat Haven called Hanson’s mother Wednesday afternoon to tell her about her daughter’s death. She called her ex-husband and told him she was coming to his condo with news about their daughter.

“I assumed the worst,” Paul Hanson said. “First I thought it was a car crash. Then I said, ‘Did a cat turn on her?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ”

100-acre park

The 100-acre Cat Haven opened in 1993 and has housed numerous big cats, including tigers, leopards and other exotic species. It is permitted to house exotic animals by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and is regulated as a zoo by the Department of Agriculture.

Cat Haven’s current “restricted species” permit, which expires in November, states the park was authorized to house 47 animals but had only 28.

The facility’s website says it promotes conservation and preservation of wildcats in their native habitats and offers visitors tours and educational outreach.

Results of the last 13 USDA inspections show no violations dating back to March 2010. The most recent inspection was Feb. 4.

Anderson, the Cat Haven director, said Project Survival would investigate to see if Hanson and the other worker on-site followed the group’s protocols.

On Thursday, during a brief news conference, Anderson gave few new details on the attack.

Reading from a prepared statement, he said, “We want to assure the community that safety protocols were and are in place at Cat Haven.”

The attack shocked Valli Murnane, who worked as a Cat Haven volunteer docent in 1999. She said workers and volunteers went through extensive training.

“Safety was No. 1, so that’s why I was so surprised,” she told The Fresno Bee.

Murnane said she never saw anyone in an enclosure with the large cats.

“There were protocols we followed, as you can imagine, because these were wild animals,” she said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@Seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan

Seattle Times staff reporters Jack Broom and Alexa Vaughn and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from

The Associated Press.

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