Photograph by Mark Crosse, McClatchy Tribune/Zuma Press

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A male lion killed a volunteer worker at Project Survival Cat Haven in California.

Photograph by Mark Crosse, McClatchy Tribune/Zuma Press

California Death Prompts Questions About Lion Attacks

Twenty-four-year-old worker killed by big cat at wildlife sanctuary.

An African lion killed a worker Wednesday at a wildlife sanctuary called Cat Haven in Dunlap, California.

Twenty-four-year-old Dianna Hanson of Seattle died after a 350-pound (160-kilogram) lion named Cous Cous escaped a smaller pen and attacked Hanson as she was cleaning its main enclosure, according to CNN. Hanson reportedly died quickly of a broken neck, and the lion inflicted other injuries after death. The Fresno County sheriff deputy shot and killed the lion in an effort to stop the attack, but it was too late, according to news reports. (Also see "Pittsburgh Zoo Tragedy: Why Did African Wild Dogs Attack Boy?")

We asked two leading big cat experts to weigh in on the tragedy: Craig Packer, a 2012 National Geographic Waitt grantee and ecologist at the University of Minnesota; and conservation scientist Luke Dollar, grant-program director of the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative.

What was your reaction to the news?

Craig Packer: The young woman was apparently attacked when the lion broke out of its holding cage and caught her while she was cleaning out its enclosure. Fully-fledged zoos are always extremely careful to keep their staff out of harm's way with heavy duty holding facilities.

Luke Dollar: I hope we don't try to vilify a law-enforcement officer who was acting on short notice in an attempt to get medical attention to the victim as quickly as possible. The danger has to be removed.

The lion is a predator and its a big, powerful animal. Whether it intended to "attack and devour" the keeper or simply "played too rough" is not clear at present. What's certain is that these animals demand a great deal of respect and constant vigilance.

Is there any bigger takeaway from this incident?

CP: Lions attract a lot of attention: Lion Country Safari, the Lion King, Born Free, Chronicles of Narnia, the Cowardly Lion, etc. They are big fluffy mammals with cute cubs and affectionate family relationships.

Most of the time they seem relaxed and cuddly—so it's easy to forget that they react to meat with the reflexive instincts of a shark. Ten years ago Roy Horne (of Siegfried  and Roy) was attacked by a tiger that they had handled for years—these attacks happen when people forget about the shark inside.

Can wild animals like lions be domesticated?

LD: To take a big cat and treat it as a pet is ill advised. It really is wonderful to love and respect these creatures, but it is truly folly [to think] that one can commune and be friends with them. We have learned that lesson over and over, whether it's with bears or big cats or venomous snakes.

We have this fascination [with dangerous animals such as lions] because of their potential lethality, but for some reason we still cross the line that should never be crossed.  ... Anthropomorphization is a dangerous thing. These are wild animals—this is not Simba from the Lion King.